The fight against climate change is gaining momentum in the aviation industry: Boeing announced at the recent Farnborough Airshow a partnership with Alder Fuels, a producer of sustainable fuels from biomass waste. European competition is indeed there: Airbus wants to develop, in collaboration with airlines such as Lufthansa, a technology that can extract CO2 from the air and then store it underground. In addition, the manufacturer is working on a hydrogen-powered aircraft.
Still, the road to net zero will be long and winding, as demand for flights grows rapidly – and CO2 emissions at the same time. At the same time, sustainable technologies remain years or even decades away from commercialization. This poses a threat to airlines, which have limited influence over how quickly they can reduce emissions but face increasing regulatory pressure.
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Why are sustainable fuels still so expensive?
Today, the biggest hopes are on sustainable aviation fuel (Sustainable aviation fuel, SAF) and new aeronautical technologies. Together, they should account for about 80% of emissions reductions expected by 2050, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). According to studies such as the IAEA, the remaining 20% can be achieved through such measures. such as implementing more efficient flight paths, offsetting CO2 and continuously improving aircraft fuel efficiency.
In 2019, sustainable fuels from plant waste or biomass covered less than 0.1% of global fuel needs. A major part of this very low weight is cost: the most used and least expensive SAF is two to three times more expensive than traditional kerosene. A significant reduction in cost is unfortunately not foreseen due to dependence on limited raw materials. Moreover, only a few factories in the world can produce sustainable fuels.
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Nevertheless, SAFs have enormous potential for growth and should be a major lever for reducing emissions in the coming years. Several European countries already require airlines to add a certain amount of SAF to their fuel. Such regulations are also planned in Switzerland, a country that already partially uses sustainable fuels from 2021.
Regulations drive the development of SAF
Political incentives should help increase the supply of low-carbon fuels. Producers and refiners working with sustainable fuels will therefore benefit from this trend – and gain attractiveness to investors. However, widespread use of SAFs requires cost-cutting measures to make flights more climate-friendly and financially viable for airlines.
Studies (including F. Ueckerdt, C. Bauer, A. Dirnaichner et al., 2021) further show that from 2040 synthetic fuels produced from, for example, electricity, hydrogen and CO2 are theoretically unlimited, may also play an important role. Such fuels are not yet mature, but are expected to produce nearly 100% less emissions than traditional kerosene, provided renewable energy and green hydrogen are used in their fuel production. Policy measures such as fusion requirements should encourage the development of synthetic fuels.
In addition to hydrogen-based synthetic fuels, some aircraft and engine manufacturers are also considering the use of liquid hydrogen. New aircraft designs and technological development are required to fly aircraft with this fuel in the future. By 2050, liquid hydrogen is expected to play a role especially in long-haul flights and eventually cover 20-25% of the total energy consumption of the aerospace industry.
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Technologies to reduce fuel consumption in aviation are also being developed. The first ones have already been put into operation, which leads to an increase in demand for manufacturers. Low-carbon or carbon-free aviation fuels are expected to experience a real boom from the middle of the next decade. Therefore, investors have every interest to keep a close eye on them.