Aviation’s Emissions Problem
Why more urgency and sustainable aviation fuel are needed
By Robbie Bourke and David Kaplan
 // . //  Insights // Aviation’s Emissions Problem

This article was first published by Forbes on Nov 10, 2021.

When it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, commercial aviation faces one of the toughest challenges of any industry. Currently, aviation accounts for about 2.6% of emissions worldwide, but it risks rising to as much as 5% of the global total, as the industry falls behind others when it comes to decarbonization.

The reasons for the jump are simple. Substantially more people will be traveling by air by 2030, and the current pledges made by airlines to use more low-carbon alternative fuel will at best only help cancel out a chunk of that growth. That leaves the industry exposed to public criticism and regulation — and the planet in peril.

Between 2019 and 2030, the global aircraft fleet is expected to expand 30%, and air travel — particularly in places like China and India — will be up substantially. Because of this growth, emissions from aviation could rise as much as 20% by 2030 — at a time when the planet needs the global economy to halve its greenhouse gas output, not increase it. Just to keep emissions close to flat with 2019 levels, every global airline would have to substitute low-carbon sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for more than 15% of their current consumption. Anything less and emissions will move in the wrong direction.

Innovation at Scale

To cut emissions, even a little, will take commercially scalable new technology and new fuels. Right now neither is within immediate reach.

Admittedly, aerospace has a short but impressive history of innovation at scale. In just the past century, it has moved from crude propeller planes to jets, to supersonic aircraft, to rockets that travel beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Over that 100 years, aerospace manufacturers have consistently pushed the envelope on developing ever more efficient engines that burn less and less fossil fuel. But to make progress on the emissions problem by 2030 would require the industry to mount an effort as urgent as the search for the Covid-19 vaccine, and so far that hasn’t emerged.

To keep emissions flat, airlines would have to substitute SAF for more than 15% of their current fuel consumption.

For now, it’s one step forward, two steps back for aviation on emissions because of the insatiable demand for air travel. For instance, while aviation managed to cut the amount of fuel burned per passenger by 24% between 2005 and 2017, there was simultaneously a much bigger percentage increase in air travel. Passengers flew 60% more on average in 2017 than they did in 2005, and that was bad news for emissions. Most experts also believe we’re close to the apex on the efficiency that can be achieved with fossil fuel-powered engines.

Read the full article on Forbes

Also contributing to this article were Oliver Wyman’s partners Khalid Usman, Matt Poitras, David Stewart and David Knipe, vice president Andrew Buchanan, senior manager Ian Reagan, and senior consultant Matt Landes.