Middle East airlines among the more advanced on climate action, Iata chief says

Green hydrogen will be 'key to the production of synthetic fuels', Willie Walsh says

Etihad Airways runs a sustainability flight-testing platform as part of its pledge to make operations greener. Photo: Etihad
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Global airlines are determined to meet their net-zero goal by 2050, despite some concerns about its achievability, and Middle East companies are among the most proactive in addressing climate targets, according to the head of the International Air Transport Association.

Willie Walsh was speaking at a gathering of airlines this week in Istanbul, where executives voiced their concerns about how to reach the long-term target.

“The commitment is global. Everybody is nervous about what it's going to take, there is concern about the cost and about whether the targets can be achieved, but there is very clear determination from everybody to do it,” Mr Walsh said.

“Carriers in the region, actually, are probably some of the more advanced,” he said. “Carriers in the region are doing a lot … we have reason to be very proud of what's happening in the region.”

First Emirates flight powered by sustainable aviation fuel

First Emirates flight powered by sustainable aviation fuel

Emirates airline's recently announced $200 million fund for the production of sustainable aviation fuel and Etihad Airways' ongoing sustainable flight-testing programme are some examples of regional airlines' efforts on climate action.

The UAE, the Middle East's travel and tourism hub, revealed its National Sustainable Aviation Fuel Road Map in January, which aims to accelerate the decarbonisation of the aviation sector, according to the Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure's website.

Last month, Abu Dhabi’s clean energy company Masdar and European plane maker Airbus signed an initial pact to collaborate on the development of SAF, green hydrogen and direct air capture technology.

In January, a consortium including Masdar, France’s TotalEnergies and Germany's Siemens Energy said it plans to produce SAF from methanol. It is currently focused on a project to produce SAF from green hydrogen.

The UAE, also a major global aviation hub, is home to long-haul airline Emirates, midsized Etihad Airways and budget specialists Air Arabia, flydubai, Wizz Air Abu Dhabi and Air Arabia Abu Dhabi.

The country has pledged to reach net zero by 2050, backed by a Dh600 billion investment in clean and renewable energy sources over the next three decades.

Iata's five road maps to 2050

During its annual general meeting this week in Istanbul, Iata unveiled a series of “strategic road maps” to achieve the target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The goal, announced in 2021, includes a progressive increase in the use of SAF.

The newly launched road maps provide details of critical actions, interim milestones to aim for from now till 2050, and ways to track that progress. They address aircraft technology, energy infrastructure, operations, finance and policies.

They will include a tool to track the amount of SAF airlines are buying and using to ensure accountability across the sector.

SAF is expected to deliver about 62 per cent of the carbon mitigation needed to achieve net zero by 2050, according to Iata.

“We're asking governments to help the industry to net zero – it's the most important issue that we face,” Mr Walsh said.

“Airlines want to see more SAF being produced because we know there's a double benefit: the more that's produced, the lower the cost will be. And the more that's produced, the better the environmental performance will be.”

Green hydrogen will be “key” to the clean production of synthetic fuels, which have the advantage of not relying on other feedstocks, Mr Walsh said.

Africa's potential to lead SAF production

Iata is also working to encourage countries to incentivise and develop the production of SAF, said Kamil Al Awadhi, Iata's regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East.

“I truly believe that Africa will be, at some point, leading SAF production … It's just about getting really co-ordinated,” he said, pointing at the continent's vast natural resources.

Of the 54 countries in Africa, some are “very focused” on SAF and Iata will work “hand in hand with them”, while others are “by far not interested at this moment”, but Iata will “nudge” them to jump-start the use of SAF, he said.

“In the end, Africa has all the opportunity to be the number one SAF producer,” the regional Iata chief said.

Oil-producing countries in the Middle East region are “more focused” on SAF production than their non-oil-producing peers, he said.

“They are driving initiatives and they've set up institutes and they're doing their part quite quickly and investing a lot into developing SAF,” Mr Al Awadhi said.

Asked if the global airline industry can meet its net zero target by 2050, RwandaAir chief executive Yvonne Makolo said: “It's a very, very ambitious target, but we do need ambitious targets to aspire to.”

African airlines, already facing high costs of operations, are also grappling with a supply shortage and the steep price of SAF.

“In the context of African airlines, when you're talking about SAF, for us we're looking at, when are we going to get any? And when we do get it, at what cost?” she said.

African airlines can undertake operational efficiencies to reduce their carbon footprint while SAF becomes more accessible, Ms Makolo said.

“So I'm optimistic and hopeful,” she said.

Updated: June 11, 2023, 9:44 AM