What would the airline industry do if they were serious about achieving carbon free flying in 2050?

Arie Bleijenberg — July 25, 2022

A case for government regulation

What would the airline industry do if they were serious about achieving carbon free flying in 2050?

First, they will ask for government regulation. Voluntary agreements do not work, nor do long-term aspirational goals. Instead, regulation provides certainty and a path forward. This helps front runners to advance their business case and forces laggards to catch up. A level playing field requires government regulation. Two former Big Oil executives make the same case in the San Francisco Chronicle.

An attractive path forward is setting a maximum for the CO2 emissions per unit of energy used by aviation. This maximum gradually declines from the current level to net-zero in 2050. This very simple approach creates a solid framework for all further actions by the industry and for detailing the rules. Which sustainable fuels are allowed? How is it assured that the production capacity for green synthetic fuels from wind and solar power becomes available in time? And many more. European Directives are seeking to sort out many of these details. Gradually, the political tension will crystallize around these topics. The aviation industry will try to limit their cost increases, while society wants to limit economic, social, and ecological damage.

Once the outline of this framework becomes clear, all involved industries start working towards zero-carbon aviation. The gradual rise of energy prices for flying, forms the compass of their actions and the basis for their business cases. The price of the required volume of zero-carbon fuels could start at around three euro/l and might decline to two euro/l towards 2050. This steep increase from the current price of 0.5 euro/l, will catalyse decarbonization. Energy efficiency of flying will improve by ten to twenty percent. Development and use of electric aircraft for short distances will accelerate because these become cost competitive. R& D into hydrogen airplanes might get a boost if Airbus is convinced that green hydrogen becomes cheaper than other zero-carbon fuels.

In addition to these technological improvements, people will also fly less. This results from the increase in ticket prices by around fifty percent on average. Therefore, travel volume in 2050 will be around a quarter lower than without the outlined transition to zero-carbon aviation. Air travel will still grow, but at a slower pace.

The airline industry urges governments “to agree on stable policies that enable aviation to transition to a net-zero future” (link). A next step in an effective lobby is to make clear which policies the industry wants. It would be a leap forward if the airlines embrace the simple regulatory framework sketched in this post. Until the airline industries lobby for such a framework is successful, reducing aviation’s emissions will continue to rely on a variety of European, national and international policies.

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