By Conrad Clifford, IATA's Deputy Director General
As my IATA chapter closes, I’m full of optimism for the future of aviation.
Working for an organization like IATA, which has a global presence and speaks for such an important industry as aviation, can take you to unexpected places. This week I was at COP28 in Dubai, speaking at an industry event hosted by ATAG - the Air Transport Action Group.
Traditionally, aviation has never been high on the COP agenda. This is because addressing aviation and shipping emissions are not part of the COP process. As trans-national business sectors, aviation and shipping emissions have been given to their respective UN bodies, the International Civil Aviation Organisation and International Maritime Organisation, to sort out. That’s how ICAO Member States were able to agree the CORSIA scheme, the Long Term Aspirational Goal, and most recently the CAAF/3 settlement, for aviation emissions.
Nevertheless, the decisions from the COP are of course vitally important for the fight against climate change and for their potential impacts on the global economy and aviation. Consequently, IATA has always maintained a presence at COP through its observer status and monitored the discussions. It’s also an important forum for reminding our political stakeholders of the actions aviation itself is taking to contain and ultimately reduce its CO2, with our eventual goal of net-zero CO2 by 2050 always in our minds.
To that effect, the discussions at the ATAG event were promising. Attendees included some senior government regulators from around the world, some heads of sustainability from airlines and other industry stakeholders, including ICAO. That is the sort of cross industry-government collaboration that is needed to crack our sustainability conundrum.
I was glad to see a growing realism in what is needed in the race to net zero. “We need all measures we can deliver - all at once - right now” was how one speaker put it. In addition to new aircraft, new engines and better ATM, that includes Lower Carbon Aviation Fuels (LCAF), that includes Offsets, and for 2050 we have to have advanced SAFs as well as the existing HEFA pathways.
At the same time, we are working with a number of agencies to accelerate new technologies: the Cambridge Accelerator and the International Transition Accelerator - though these are likely to be more significant post-2050 including electric and hydrogen aircraft. There was some discussion of the impact of contrails though personally I think impacting these at scale is going to be a huge challenge.
I was particularly interested to see the presentation from Virgin on their recent 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) flight across the Atlantic. I remember when Virgin was the first to fly a commercial flight with one engine on a SAF blend, back in 2008, and their achievement this year is a welcome reminder that there are no technological barriers to making significant reductions in the life-cycle CO2 emissions from aircraft. SAF is the best tool we have at the moment, but it is vital it is scaled up as quickly as possible. This year we’ve seen SAF production double, but it is still only 0.2% of our fuel needs. Right now, Big Oil is spending a tiny fraction of its revenues on sustainable energy, and SAF makes up a tiny fraction – just 3% - of all the renewable fuels currently produced. As we said in our recent press release, if we can access 25-30% of renewable fuel production capacity, that will put us on track to get the amounts of SAF we need to help us reach net-zero by 2050.
I was also very impressed by the roadmaps and calculations simulations, or “models”, that several states around the world are putting in place to better chart the course to net zero 2050. In particular I was lucky enough to be asked to comment on the roadmaps developed by LATAM and the Chilean government covering six states in the South American region, with MIT as the lead, assistance from Airbus, and including HIF Global (an E-Jet startup) which originated in Chile and is now building plants in USA and Europe, and TNC (an offsets NGO). Their work, which will be completed next year, already demonstrates that each state will pick a different path that best suits its own situation but can be considered in a regional and global context. They also highlight the importance of advanced SAF in addition to traditional HEFA, and the necessity for incentives and regulatory certainty. And finally, in a part of the world with some enormous natural resources, they highlighted the importance of considering offsetting not only in its carbon but also in its societal contexts. With CORSIA kicking off in January 2024 it is essential that states release carbon credits so that early adopters of tools like Offsets can get the benefits of their activities.
Government involvement is essential in the path to net zero and in building a regulatory framework that gives certainty and incentives to SAF producers. We need a level playing field, with the kinds of support that governments still give to traditional fossil fuel producers also flowing to SAF production.
Government incentives enabled renewable energies, like wind and solar, to become mainstream and considerably cheaper and more plentiful than a decade ago. The IRA incentives that the US Government introduced have been shown to be a huge spur to development innovation and production: we need other Governments to follow the US lead and we need the US to extend the availability of these incentives further into the future.
I mentioned the implementation of CORSIA from January of next year the importance of national carbon credits being made available by states. We also need an effective SAF Accounting mechanism, to maximize the efficient use of the SAF that is available and its environmental credentials.
My appearance at COP28 marks my final engagement as Deputy Director General of IATA. At the end of this year, I shall be retiring after more than 30 years in the air transport business. The last few years have been some of the most turbulent for aviation that I have ever seen, but the recovery from the pandemic and the optimism for SAF leaves me feeling full of hope for the future of this industry. There are undoubtedly huge challenges facing aviation, but the desire people have for travelling is clearly undimmed, and that, in turn, will drive the technological innovations that will make aviation more sustainable.
Wherever you read this in the world, I wish you a happy festive season. And in particular, if you are travelling over the holiday period, I wish you a safe and comfortable flight to your destination.