Generating lift for low-carbon aviation

Generating lift for low-carbon aviation

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Key findings

  • The airline industry’s embrace of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) reflects both SAF’s potential to reduce roughly three-quarters of the carbon emissions associated with flying and the compatibility of SAF with planes currently in use.
  • Scale will be critical to continue the deployment of SAF while also supporting technology development and commercialization of e-fuels and other alternatives.
  • The supply of SAF made from used cooking oil and other biologically derived fats is constrained by the availability of feedstock, a problem that also limits the supply of low-carbon fuels based on synthetic feedstocks


2023 saw a flurry of excitement from the airline industry.

First, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 flew from Heathrow Airport to Kennedy Airport on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), becoming the first commercial flight to do so. Then a Gulfstream G600 flew, with considerably less fanfare, from Savannah, Georgia to London, becoming the first private jet to make the transatlantic flight using SAF alone. Each flight cut around 70% to 80% of the typical carbon emissions associated with flying, signaling to the world that sustainable fuels are here and that planes can fly on them.

The push to decarbonize matters for an industry that contributes about 2% (about 800 megatons) of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually. To put this in context, the annual emissions from aviation exceed the emissions of most countries, including Canada, Germany and South Korea.

Decarbonizing air travel aviation is difficult. Despite the early progress signaled by demonstration flights, industry leaders continue to be concerned about the current lack of investment in SAF, which supplies less than 1% of global aviation fuel today. For SAF to supply the nearly 100,000 flights that take off and land every day all over the globe, much remains to be done.

SAF’s allure lies in its congruence with current aircraft: SAF is a drop-in fuel — meaning airlines can use it right now as a blend with conventional jet fuel. This aspect is critical, as the current median age of the industry’s fleet is a relatively youthful nine years, less than half the typical useful life of commercial aircraft.

Battery- or hydrogen-powered planes — another of the industry’s emerging solutions to slash emissions, though further than SAF from achieving commercial scale — would require replacing aircraft, something that would be difficult to do in time to achieve the industrywide long-term aspirational goal of net-zero by 2050.

This embrace of SAF is also the most direct path to net-zero: Of the tools the industry has at its disposal in 2024, drop-in fuels such as SAF have the largest potential impact on reducing residual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Both the airline industry and its governing bodies — the trade association International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) — as well as aircraft manufacturers identify SAF as the main tool for achieving aviation’s net-zero goal (Exhibit 1) and as a way for airlines to satisfy some of the emissions abatement requirements set in the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

Exhibit 1: The aviation industry’s mix of low-carbon tech to be net-zero in 2050

Source: ICAO Environmental Report 2022.

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