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Aviation requires a credible path to a sustainable future

Decarbonizing aviation is a huge task. Solving it is possible, but it will require determination and more ambitious targets. Sustainable aviation fuels are available to reduce carbon emissions of flying already today.

Sami Jauhiainen

Many of us know the feeling. With an enormous task, it can be difficult to get things started, such as cleaning the whole house before the Christmas holidays.

This is the feeling one can get when thinking about the challenge that climate change poses for the aviation industry. Already today about 300 million tons of fossil fuels are burned every year to fuel airplanes. And unlike in most other sectors where oil is used, there is no prospect in sight for the amount to decline, quite the contrary. The amount of flying is expected to double over the next 15-20 years, and burning of jet fuel is bound to grow with that.

This is not helpful in a world that according to IPCC report (2019) has less than twelve years to act and limit climate change within the tolerable 1.5C degrees.

Big task will require drastic measures

The eventual decarbonization of aviation will require fundamental changes.

People in the Western world probably need to fly less than today, and they need to use more alternative modes of transport. Electric aircraft will need to become commercially available. Completely new technologies for producing sustainable aviation fuels will need to be adopted to replace oil. These include power-to-liquids fuels, involving the production of fuels from CO2 in the atmosphere with renewable hydrogen produced from water using solar or wind power. Big role can also be played by technologies that use for example algae oils or municipal solid waste as raw material for the production of sustainable aviation fuels.

Many of these solutions are not commercially available today. Therefore, it is easy to make the same choice as many of us do with the Christmas cleaning. Postponing it to the future, when due to some reason, it is perceivably more convenient or easier to get the job done.

This way of thinking is unfortunately not helping the aviation industry to get the required transformation off the ground.

All journeys start from taking the first steps

The key thing that is missing from today's global aviation is the lack of a credible path, or a runway, to a sustainable future.

At the same time, many solutions to reduce carbon emissions of flying are already available, and those can be deployed in larger scale than today. A lot can be achieved by taking into use more efficient aircraft and pursuing improvements that optimize flight operations for carbon efficiency.

Sustainable aviation fuels are also available in the market to substitute use of fossil jet fuel. When using waste and residue based raw materials for the production of sustainable aviation fuels, it is possible to reduce life-cycle carbon emissions of flying by up to 80%. Neste has around 100,000 tons of capacity available to produce sustainable aviation fuels, and this amount will grow to one million tons by 2022. Also many others are making investments in this area.

Making the transformation happen

More ambitious targets are certainly needed from the aviation industry and policy makers to speed up the change. It will not be sufficient to base those targets on offsetting aviation related emissions with reductions in other sectors. Aviation will need to reduce its own emissions. Roadmaps to the set targets need to include both measures that are readily available today, and those that will still require more work to deploy.

I also strongly believe that more collaboration across the value chain and industry stakeholders is critical to make the change happen.

In early 2019, Neste made its first commercial sales of sustainable aviation fuels in collaboration with Air BP in the Swedish market. Later in the autumn, we announced our collaboration with Lufthansa, enabling the use of SAF in the Frankfurt airport. In December, we announced to supply KLM additional sustainable aviation fuel for flights out of Schiphol. These partnerships demonstrate what can be achieved when ambitious, like-minded companies work together.

There is also a lot that an individual traveller can do. Many leading airlines are already offering their corporate and private customers the opportunity to compensate the emissions of flying, by choosing to contribute money to purchases of sustainable aviation fuels.

The task of cleaning aviation is enormous. But as with any big project, change is possible after the path is chosen and the courage is there to take the first steps.


Sami Jauhiainen, Vice President Business Development at Neste