Putting some reality into ecoAviation: steps *backwards*

By Scott Hamilton


Jan. 25, 2022, © Leeham News: The airline industry makes a splash about setting goals to become carbon neutral by a date certain. It also set a goal to reduce CO2 emissions in absolute terms by a date 30 years in the future after achieving carbon neutrality.

How will these lofty goals be achieved?

Using lightweight materials in airplanes, including composites. Improving aerodynamics. More fuel-efficient engines. There’s “great promise” in biofuels. Improving air traffic management.

Were these the big announcements by the International Air Transport Assn. at its annual general meeting in October in Boston?


Jim Albaugh, former president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Credit: Boeing.

These goals were outlined in a speech in June 2011 by Jim Albaugh, then-president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BAC) before the prestigious Royal Aeronautical Society (RAS).

The IATA AGM pronouncements went backward. Albaugh said in 2011 that the aviation industry’s goal of net-carbon neutrality was for 2020. IATA’s goal for achieving net carbon neutrality is 2050, the year Albaugh said was the goal to reduce CO2 emissions in absolute terms.

Reducing Emissions

Looking back 10 years, going on 11, it’s fair to ask whether the commercial aviation industry has made much progress in reducing emissions or it’s just engaged in greenwashing?

Definition: Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly. (Bold in the original.)

It’s both. But progress, looking back, seems excruciatingly slow.

“Meeting those goals will take technology and will also take new products,” Albaugh said in that 2011 speech. “Believe it or not, some 75% of the research and development that we do has an impact on the environmental footprint of our airplanes, whether that’s fuel efficiency, CO2, or noise. Over the last 50 years, we have reduced the CO2 emissions of our airplanes by 70%.”

Fifty years. And, if the industry meets IATA’s October 2021 target dates, another 29 years will have passed. But even then, the target of reducing CO2 emissions “in absolute terms” will be missed. Now, the goal is net-zero carbon by 2050.

“It’s good for the customers, it’s good for the passengers, it’s good for the environment, and it’s the right thing for us to do, to care about the environment or the world that we live in,” Albaugh told the RAS. “Our industry has set a goal for being carbon neutral by 2020, and also to reduce our CO2 emissions in absolute terms by 2050.”

Sustainable aviation fuel leads the way

“How are you going to do that? I think there are really five things that you have to work on,” Albaugh, who is an engineer, said. “One, lightweight materials in airplanes. You read that as composites. You have to continue to work on the aerodynamics of the airplane, and we think of some pretty exciting aerodynamic technology that we can apply to the next airplane that we build. You have to look at more fuel-efficient engines, and each of the three major engine companies we have working for us is doing just that. You also have to have a much more efficient air traffic management system than we have today. There’s also a great promise in biofuels.”

Albaugh called biofuels “one of the most exciting frontiers for our industry. This is jet fuel made from plants that don’t compete with food crops for land or water. The energy densities of these biofuels are some 50% to 80% less carbon, but also higher energy density. We’re working with many airlines as well as several countries on developing capabilities to do that.”

Biofuel testing was first approved in 2011. In the decade since, many airlines, along with Boeing and Airbus, have made demo flights and a few have used biofuels on passenger flights. But the obstacles to shifting to biofuels are huge. There is little in the way of production infrastructure. The lack of feedstock is a big supply issue. One major US airline said it could buy all the available biofuel available today and it would run the fleet for one day. And the cost: biofuels are four to eight times more expensive than jet fuel.

Improving Air Traffic Management

Making the airways more efficient has been a decades-long effort, with little progress because funding hasn’t been made available to the Federal Aviation Administration. But Albaugh also pointed to this as a requirement—as did IATA last October, when it said, “Governments and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) [need to eliminate] inefficiencies in air traffic management and airspace infrastructure.”

“Air traffic management provides a real opportunity for making airplanes more efficient,” Albaugh said. “My view is the next big transportation project that the US needs to embark on is a next-generation ATM system. I think it will provide the interstate highway system of the sky, and it will allow airplanes to fly more precise routes. It will also allow them to have much more efficient ascends and descends.”

IATA Milestones

Still, biofuels hold more promise than pie-in-the-sky pronouncements about battery-powered airplanes, hybrids with electric motors or even hydrogen-fueled aircraft and systems.

At its October AGM, IATA set milestones for achieving meaningful use of biofuels. Given the need for trillions of dollars in government support, even these milestones seem lofty bordering on wishful thinking. IATA’s Milestones:

The combination of measures needed to achieve net-zero emissions for aviation by 2050 will evolve over the course of the commitment based on the most cost-efficient technology available at any particular point in time. A base case scenario as follows is the current focus:

  • 2025: With appropriate government policy support, SAF production is expected to reach 7.9 billion liters (2% of total fuel requirement)
  • 2030: SAF production is 23 billion liters (5.2% of total fuel requirement). ANSPs have fully implemented the ICAO Aviation System Block Upgrades and regional programs such as the Single European Sky
  • 2035: SAF production is 91 billion liters (17% of total fuel requirement). Electric and/or hydrogen aircraft for the regional market (50-100 seats, 30-90 min flights) become available
  • 2040: SAF production is 229 billion liters (39% of total fuel requirement). Hydrogen aircraft for the short-haul market (100-150 seats, 45-120 min flights) become available.
  • 2045: SAF production is 346 billion liters (54% of total fuel requirement).
  • 2050: SAF production hits 449 billion liters (65% of total fuel requirement).
Making promises

“SAF will fuel the majority of aviation’s global emissions mitigation in 2050. The recently announced US Grand challenge to increase the supply of SAF to 11 billion liters (3 billion gallons) by 2030 is a great example of the kinds of policies that will drive aviation sustainability,” IATA wrote. “Similarly, the announcements from several big energy suppliers that they intend to produce billions of extra liters of SAF in the near term are welcome. But we cannot tolerate announcements with no follow-up. To be meaningful, fuel suppliers must be accountable for delivering SAF at cost-competitive prices.

These and other goals were met with some skepticism by one of the leaders of the airline industry. Tim Clark, the president of Emirates Airline, summed it up neatly in one sentence” “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

The next article of this series will be an interview with Clark in which he details challenges as he sees them.

40 Comments on “Putting some reality into ecoAviation: steps *backwards*

  1. People like to criticize the aviation industry for not de-carbonizing quickly enough, but are its efforts any worse than in other sectors?
    The switch to EVs for ground-based transportation doesn’t of itself reduce emissions — it merely hands the emission reduction problem to whoever is providing the electricity needed to charge batteries and/or produce hydrogen. That, in turn, saddles governments with a number of very thorny problems, such as providing reliable and controllable supply (neither wind not solar satisfy this), and modifying grids to carry lots more electricity than what existing grids were designed for (a problem that is seldom discussed in the media, but which is a major headache). Not to mention the gargantuan task of processing mountains of batteries that have reached EOL.
    Looked at that way, once can argue that the “EV revolution” in ground transportation is just another form of “greenwashing”.

    • wind and solar are “reliable enough”, especially if combined with some form of energy storage such as pumped hydro (where you use excess wind/solar energy during times of high production to pump water uphill which is then harvested in traditional hydro-electric manner during times of low production. this has been done for over 100 years and commonly excess power from baseband power plants is used to pump water uphill at night when demand is low)

      hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water using sustainable energy is pretty darn clean.

      • The Netherlands, and a large part of the rest of northwest Europe, have been in a incessant, dull calm for the past 2 weeks solid: there hasn’t been a puff of wind, and barely an hour of sunshine through a thick canopy. That means zero output from wind turbines, and very sub-optimal output from solar.
        You think that enough hydrogen can be made (and stored) during the “good times” to power an entire, heavily-industrialized country for 2 weeks (and counting)?
        The principles sound great on paper, but run into huge obstacles in practice.

      • Pumped hydro storage is very limited in availability of suitable geography. Damns themselves have been a vast mistake: destroying the environment, preventing fertilisation via silt flows and releasing vast amounts of CO2 as forests drown. Many analysis show that hydroelectricity has been a negative, decisively.

        Two forms of storage will need to be used as follow:
        1 Battery storage for at least 1/2 an hour. This is the time it takes to start a combined cycle power station. In reality you want at least 4 hours to smooth the flows. 14-24 hour storage to handle the day/night cycle when wind mostly abates and and solar disappears.

        2 Hydrogen Storage. The best plant we have for generating electricity from hydrogen are combine cycle power where a steam turbine is added down stream of a gas turbine for about 60% efficiency (was heading to 70% efficiency). With electrolysis and compression at 80% efficiency the overall efficiency would be about 80% x 60% = 48%. This low efficiency is why battery storage is needed as an intermediate buffer to handle the diurnal cycle. Fuel cells might be used but are no more efficient at this point.

        Several months of hydrogen would be stored in a hydrogen supply system.

        The reality probably is that only some of the hydrogen would be stored renewable green hydrogen made from excess renewables.

        Most of it would be blue hydrogen made from coal/oil/natural gas where the CO2 is pumped underground. The technology is well tested.

        We are now talking 3 or actually 4 very expensive systems whereby there was once only 1 cheaper one.

        As much heating would need to be transferred to hydrogen with duel systems that can use electrical or hydrogen as best suited at the time.

        Hydrogen storage & Blue hydrogen and hydrogen transport is why hydrogen flight and FCEV make sense.

        Without nuclear it will all be extremely expensive and create much hardship.

        • Just to add. I renewable electricity system looks like something with sufficient battery backup to supply uninterrupted 8-14 hours of electricity on an average day. At night the switch will be made to combined cycle hydrogen. In unusual weather, which will be frequent, the system will run off hydrogen. Most of the hydrogen will be blue hydrogen with some green hydrogen from excess production.

    • The Toyota Prius was introduced into the market in 1987, that’s 35 years ago. This remarkable large 5 seat car achieves fuel efficiencies of less than 50% of other vehicles. About 4.2L/100km or 60 imperial mpg. With road transport being 28% of emissions and aviation 2.2% I seems bizarre that this technology has not become completely standard in the last 35 years. Instead our roads are filled with monstrous SUV, personal trucks that are hardly used for purpose. It seems the opportunity to save at least 10%-15% of emissions has been lost. That’s 5 times more than all of aviation put together.

      • Personal freedom is the difference there. You could make similar arguments about house vs apartment, omnivore vs vegetarian, etc.

        • I’m sure you are aware of the “tragedy of the commons” where a resource to which everyone has a “right” to use is over exploited and destroyed. In the first essay on the topic the problem was damaging over gazing. The near extinction of whales and many species of fish in the ocean is another. Eventually people form into groups to prevent this forcefully. It may be the local Patriarchs forming a posse comitatus. In this case the commons is the limited ability of the atmosphere to absorb CO2 (or pollutants such as CO, NOX, SO2, soot)

          In this case we’ve had 35 years or so years of monstrously oversized vehicles used mainly for status signalling to dump perhaps 50% more CO2 into the atmosphere. The right to do this seems as absurd as the “woke rights” of some groups to have trigger warnings in their text books and safe spaces. It seems at least half the technical advances in fuel economy have been used to supersize vehicles.

          The cost

          • Some people legitimately do need trucks. Who decides who needs a truck and who does not? The same argument can be made for anything CO2 intensive.

      • Actually Honda made a gasoline-powered Civic model (‘VX’) that’s more efficient over both the short and long term (whaddaya going to do with/about those batteries?) than the vaunted Prius.

        They dropped the VX model, apparently because of lack of demand. I drove a used one w/ a 100k miles already on it, and it was a little rocket.. nice.

        • Toyota have always had a bounty on the batteries so they are always recycled. Toyota did the right thing. They can be recycled, just cost a little more money for now.

    • > Not to mention the gargantuan task of processing mountains of batteries that have reached EOL. <

      thank you for pointing this out. The same exists with all "green" energy.. those unrecyclable fiberglass / CF wind turbine
      blades being another egregious example.

      Oil is dirty, and "green" is dirty; and no, I don't have an answer, except the [near]]future will probably not look like the recent past. Nip-and-tuck efficiency
      gains are lipstick on an unsustainable pig.. and I won't again mention Jevon's Paradox.

  2. “Net zero “, “carbon neutral”, “absolute terms”. Can anyone explain what these targets actually mean?

      • It seems intuitively obvious to me. My interpretation is the “nett” term means that although there may be emissions in one area (eg burning fuel, making cement ) they will be offset by negative emissions in the form of carbon capture storage and utilisation. Growing algae or plants is another. CO2 might be captured direct from the air and stored underground or converted to hydrocarbons for SAF fuel or made into single use plastic shopping bags for sequestration at the waste dump.

    • As I understand it, “net zero” and “carbon neutral” both mean that aviation creates no net CO2 emissions, i.e. if they produce 10 units of CO2 burning fuel then those 10 units are also removed somehow (carbon offsets, carbon capture & storage, etc.). I’m not 100% sure, but “absolute terms” is just emitting less CO2 than before, without comparing to anything else.

  3. On the broader subject of eco-aviation, Boeing is pouring almost half a billion dollars into an air taxi startup:
    “Boeing invests $450 million in air taxi startup”

    “Boeing is doubling down on its investment in the autonomous air taxi company Wisk Aero.
    The plane maker is committing another $450 million to the Silicon Valley startup that is developing its technology jointly with Kittyhawk, the self-flying aviation company backed by Google co-founder Larry Page.”

    Just what the world needs: swarms of autonomous flying taxis!


    For those following the Wall Street turbulence of the past few weeks: the market flushing out investment in “hot-air” tech stocks with no present or short-term earnings. That will affect many e-aviation companies with exchange listings.

  4. This is getting shamefully embarrassing… 500 BILLION liters of aviation biofuels in 2050. Expletives are deserved here, nasty expletives.

    • What point are you trying to make?
      Consumers in the USA alone used 490 billion liters of gasoline in 2020…in things like cars, garden tools and portable generators.

      Here’s an even more detailed breakdown per transport mode:

      Next up: what about all those millions of fuel-inefficient motorcycles in developing countries? What do you think they consume?

      • As you say, 490 billion liters of fuel per year… for USA, which has 20% of the world’s cars. So globally, multiply the above by 5. Motorcycles sound like consuming a lot, either Thai tut tuts or classy Harley Davidsons? Nope. Trucks. Railways. Airplanes consume 3-5% of all the fuel allotted to transportation (which is less than what agriculture uses)!

        • US Bio ethanol production is already 15 billion gallons / year which is 60 billion litres. That’s as much jet fuel as the US uses. Ethanol can very efficiently be made into jet fuel.

      • reasonable mpg, low weight, low resources, high payload.

        compare your average truck or SUV: abysmal mpg, high weight, high resource use, negligible payload ( in average use )

        your point is?

        • > compare your average truck or SUV: abysmal mpg, high weight, high resource use, negligible payload ( in average use ) <

          You should see the size of the "average" pickup truck in the
          US now: it's effing *huge*,
          with a massive frontal area.

          Absurd, and profoundly unserious.. / Exceptional Nation™

        • I already made my “point”, but I’ll clarify. Just in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, there are 160 million motorcycles in daily use. Users will stretch to get fuel performance of 6L/100km — usually much worse due to overloading and old engines. This vehicle type is often overlooked in discussions of ground transport, but it has a huge annual fuel use.

    • 500 billion liters of fuel sounds like a lot? A container ship burns some 15 tons/hour while at sea. That times 24 hors/day times 365 days/year times 50% (we assume they just travel 50% of the time. That is 65,700 tons of fuel per ship per year. Or 53 million liters per ship per year. With 5,500 container ships worldwide that is 290 billion liters per year. A bit more than half the airline industry’s number. But container cargo is just 10% of all cargo that goes bu sea. So it is a fair assumption to say that the shipping industry burns 5 time more fuel than the aviation industry, ballpark.

      • I think you’re being very conservative with that 50% deployment rate for container ships — probably more like 90% (turnaround time in modern ports is typically less than a day). So the annual fuel consumption figure is even higher than your estimate.

        Before Scott chides us for talking about shipping and ground transportation: it’s important to show that aviation is only a very small portion of the overall problem…and that other sectors are far less progressive. Since fuel costs form a major portion of the operating expenses incurred by plane operators, there is a constant incentive to reduce fuel use.

  5. All other comments aside, the premise of this article is incorrect. The IATA (and industry) goal has always been carbon neutral growth from 2020 (i.e. global industry emissions would not go above or would be offset). The 2050 goal at that time was a 50% reduction from a 2005 baseline by 2050. The current goal is net zero by 2050.

    I certainly agree that much more needs to be done for that goal to be credible.

  6. “Given the need for trillions of dollars in government support, even these milestones seem lofty”

    I always find it funny, that nowadays it seems anything is only possible with government money. And the numbers now reach trillions already.

    So if I read this correctly, the idea is to become carbon neutral, but please have somebody else paying for it. We ourselves couldn’t afford that.

    It’s always easy to spend someone else’s money. How about coming up with a plan that actually isn’t forwarding the bill to somebody else?

    • Governments are ultimately the bodies responsible for electricity generation and distribution within countries. That’s what taxes are paid for (among other things). Users of that electricity in turn pay fees, levies and taxes back to the governments concerned, and commercial providers pay concession fees.
      So it’s not “somebody else’s” bill.

  7. SAF and electric flying are certainly the worst greenwashing example!

    This will have long lasting detrimental impact on the environment and populations

    • SAF will definitely work.
      Electric flight using secondary batteries will work to about 150nmi at least.
      Electric zero emissions flight using primary batteries (aluminium air recharged by electrode cartridges) will likely work to 1500nmi.

      So long as the emissions free energy is there of course!

      • The question is not will it work. SAF are approved dropped in up to 50% since about 2010.
        The question is: Can we produce enough SAF without impact the food chain, this in a sustainable manner?

        The answer is no.
        There are limited agricultural lands and that will require shifting so productions. Even is we manage to go full fisher-tropsh using agricultural waste and 100% transformation yields we will not be able to produce the requirement.
        This is where is the big lie.

        • The term Sustainable in the SAF acronym requires that SAF fuel not compete for food cropping land hence SAF is based on waste (municipally waste) agricultural waste, waste oils etc. inedible Oil seed crops exist that are not palatable or even toxic for humans but nevertheless will grow on marginal land. The bio ethanol production of the US is already sufficient for 50% SAF.

          Finally these are the electro fuels. Definitely can be done cheap with nuclear.

          Aluminium Air batteries with energy densities of 2KWHr/kg seem to be possible and will allow transcontinental flights.

          I think the transition to 15% SAF with 15% bpmore effint aotcsft is achievable

  8. All these comments about “eco” this an “efficiency” that, are tilting at windmills (including my own comments, yes).

    We’re headed into Degrowth, big time- except for a tiny percentage of the population at the top, who will live fabulously well- on the backs of
    the 90+%. “Neofeudalism” seems an apt term..

  9. If SAF is going to stay very expensive at 4x to 8x current JetA1 prices, then it is worth considering whether it would be cheaper and easier to just directly capture the carbon.

    Using .80 USD per kg of JetA1, it currently costs $259 for the jet fuel required to produce a metric ton of CO2. According to the above article SAF is going to cost $1000 to 2000$ per metric ton of CO2.

    Direct carbon capture is estimated to cost $300-$600 now and between $94-$234 in the future per metric ton of CO2.

    Clearly then, direct carbon capture will be much cheaper than SAF, unless SAF production costs end up much lower than the 4x-8x jet fuel prices listed here.

    • An excellent point, which has been made here on LNA on regular occasions in the past (as comments to Bjorn’s series).
      Industrial carbon capture needs to be taken very seriously.

    • I think Direct Air Capture of CO2 is down to below $600/ton ($0.60/kg) and probably$200/ton.. This would be about $1.80L. Amines seem to be the best way but there are others such as hydroxide/carbonate cycles and electrovalent absorption into certain alloys.

  10. The real problem here is that all the oil is in the Middle East and all the Dip Sticks are in Washington.

  11. Global warming, global cooling (Anyone here remember the 70s?). Meh. It would be absolutely hilarious to me, after spending hundreds or $ billions ($ trillions?), and committing to it with religious fervor, if it turned out that we entered a extended global cooling cycle, obviating nearly all these efforts. Also, the way it looks like the Biden administration has shaped up to date, the U.S. will be back out of Paris in 2025. Europe, and a few unis and R &D outfits here will then continue to ride these hobbyhorses. LOL

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