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  • Writer's pictureAndreas Hardeman

Aviation In Transition: Net-Zero

(Originally published on 27 September 2019)


This week, while doing some research for a project I am working on, I came across a 2018 report from the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), a self-described “coalition of business, finance and civil society leaders from across the spectrum of energy producing and using industries”, focused on achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by mid-century.


As explained in its report, the ETC believes that moving the entire global energy and industrial system to net-zero carbon emissions – i.e. without permanently relying on the purchase of offsets - is achievable by 2050 in developed economies and 2060 in developing economies. But, as the report points out,


as we reduce CO2 emissions from the “easier-to-abate” sectors of the economy, it will become increasingly important to tackle the “harder-to-abate” sectors in heavy industry and heavy-duty transport. Otherwise, emissions from these sectors will make it impossible to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century”.


Which is of course where aviation comes in.


While giving the obligatory nod to conventional demand management options which, as far as aviation is concerned, almost always comes down to suggestions about better teleconferencing facilities, pushing for 100% load factors and promoting a modal shift from short-haul flights to high-speed rail, the report admits that “opportunities to reduce demand growth are more limited in the transport sectors than in the industrial sectors”. Still, the report foresees about a 15% CO2 gain in this area.


Full decarbonization of aviation, according to the ETC, will therefore predominantly rely on continuing energy efficiency improvements (estimates in the report of an additional 30-45% look high to me, tbh) and new forms of energy, namely battery energy storage on short distances and biojet or synthetic jet fuel for long-haul flights. So nothing fundamentally new here.


As for the costs associated with the decarbonization of aviation, the report acknowledges that “The most significant cost to end consumers would be in aviation” – indeed it estimates a supply-side abatement cost range of US$ 115-230 per tonne of CO2, translating into a 10-20% increase in ticket prices. In more detail, the report explains it as follows:


“For aviation, the key question is the cost of biofuels or synthetic fuels relative to conventional jet fuel. Estimates of today’s production costs suggest that bio-based jet fuel might cost 2-3 times fossil-based jet fuel, but this cost premium will likely decline very significantly over time as large-scale production drives economy of scale and learning curve effects. A cost penalty of less than 100% (and perhaps much less) can almost certainly be attained. For synthetic jet fuel, estimates suggest that, if renewable electricity were available at US$20/MWh, synthetic jet fuel could be delivered for about US$1.10/litre.


And:


“The best-case assumption is therefore that switching to zero-carbon fuels will impose a significant burden, with a material impact on overall airline costs and ticket prices. If the cost premium were 100% (or around US$0.5/litre), the abatement costs per tonne of CO2 saved would be about US$200, and this might add about 10-20% (e.g. US$80) to an economy class ticket on a long distance (6,500km) international flight”.


Having provided the reader with a lot of useful information and positive insights while staying away from some of the magical thinking we see so often in this area, the authors for some reason then feel the need to dismiss, in a slightly offhand manner, the significant impact that this transition would undoubtedly have by concluding that “This would not, however, have a material impact on overall standard of living or economic growth, and may simply need to be accepted as the unavoidable cost of decarbonizing the aviation sector”.

You can find the full report, “Mission Possible”, on the ETC website here.


 

About the author: Andreas Hardeman (The Hague, 1967) is an internationally experienced air transportation lawyer and an acclaimed aviation writer and commentator on current industry trends. Opinions in this blog are exclusively those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his business associates or clients. He can be contacted directly at info@astraworx.com

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