The airline sector is a particularly difficult industry to decarbonise. To incentivise emission reductions, airline companies and organisations such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has set bold targets to reach net zero by 2050.

However, they remain far off track. Airlines must embrace multiple strategies to reach net zero targets. This includes investing in and adopting key energy transition technologies, collaborating with partners across their complex value chain, and incentivising consumers to be more ESG [environmental, social and governance]-conscious.

Reducing Scope 1 emissions is the priority for airlines

Most airline emissions fall under the Scope 1 category. Scope 1 emissions derive from sources owned or controlled by the company.

For airlines, on-site emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) tend to be the largest components of these emissions. High Scope 1 emissions mean airline companies produce a lot of direct emissions from their operations.

Reducing Scope 1 emissions demands a focus on emerging technologies

To reduce emissions, the airline sector must invest in the following key technologies:

  • Alternative fuels: Industry adoption of alternative fuels across the sector is currently limited. Carbon-based e-fuels or synthetic fuels use renewable energy to produce hydrogen from water and then add carbon dioxide. Biofuels are made by processing biomass (organic material), which is renewable and can be used to make sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) and biodiesel.
  • Electrification: With high-efficiency rates compared to renewable and hydrocarbon fuels; electrification offers significant potential to cut the carbon emissions of short journeys for the commercial aviation industry.
  • Hydrogen: Hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen-powered gas turbines offer decarbonisation potential for the aviation industry by replacing hydrocarbon-based fuels with the inputs of hydrogen and oxygen. The process produces water and electricity as products. Hydrogen can be converted into ammonia, making it easier to transport and handle.
  • Carbon capture, utilisation, and storage (CCUS): Carbon capture transforms carbon from its gaseous form into a liquid or a solid carbon compound. Carbon dioxide can be taken directly from the atmosphere (direct air capture) or a point source of emissions such as an exhaust. CCUS application in aviation remains in early development.

Investing in alternative fuels holds the greatest potential for the airline industry

Alternative fuels, namely sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), have been identified as a key technology for reducing emissions. Industry adoption of alternative fuels across the airline sector is currently limited. However, overall SAF production is expected to exceed 6,000mmgy (million gallons per year) by the end of the decade, increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 49.8% between 2018 and 2030.

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In response to the industry’s need to decarbonise, an increasing number of countries have announced SAF mandates. The most ambitious targets have been announced by the UK and Japan, with both aiming for a SAF blend of 10% jet fuel by 2030.

Beyond technologies, airline companies must also avoid greenwashing tactics. Greenwashing raises a multitude of legal and reputational concerns for airlines.

The green posturing of a company is especially important to Generation Z and Generation Alpha consumers who prioritise environmental consciousness and are willing to consider switching brands or boycotting businesses if they detect unethical practices.