Collective action needed now to decarbonise aviation sector, says UN agency

Global framework for sustainable aviation fuels development required with no country left behind, ICAO chief says in Dubai

An Emirates Boeing 777-300ER is filled with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) during a demonstration flight earlier this year. Reuters
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The chief of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) called for urgently accelerating the development and deployment of sustainable lower-carbon clean fuels needed for the global aviation sector to reach its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The ICAO's third Conference on Alternative Aviation Fuels (CAAF/3), taking place in Dubai this week, has a “massive task at hand” as officials deliberate on the global framework for the aviation industry's cleaner energy transition, Salvatore Sciacchitano, president of the ICAO council, said during a keynote speech on Monday.

“We need to take collective action now and CAAF/3 can be instrumental to laying the building blocks in terms of policy and planning, regulatory framework adjustments, implementation support and financing,” he said.

“We have a great opportunity to show and communicate to the world with concrete and evident steps that aviation is seriously and strongly committed to decarbonise by 2050.”

Air and water: The rise of synthetic fuel

Air and water: The rise of synthetic fuel

In October last year, the Montreal-based ICAO's 193 member-states agreed to a long-term aspirational goal for net-zero aviation emissions by 2050, amid pressure to curb air pollution.

“It has only been a year since the decision was taken, but we can already see the transformative progress from this global sector in its transition to a cleaner energy future,” Mr Sciacchitano said.

The conference this week aims to reach an agreement on the steps needed to develop and roll out clean fuels for the aviation sector.

The idea is to advance an ICAO global framework for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), lower-carbon aviation fuels and other clean energy for adoption at the conference.

“We are looking forward to having a global framework by the end of this event that could shape the future of alternative aviation fuels,” Saif Al Suwaidi, director general of the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority, told The National.

Challenges facing some countries include financing and technical know-how.

“Now the issue is how to find common ground to make everyone happy and that would be a challenge because they have different capabilities and resources,” Mr Al Suwaidi said.

“For us as a host country, we're trying to facilitate reaching a conclusion during this conference but we don't have any control over the outcome.”

The UAE is taking a “rational approach” as it seeks to balance between the important economic contribution of aviation on one hand and protecting the environment on the other, he said.

Mr Sciacchitano urged conference participants to “recognise our different views and positions” and “to do so in the spirit of co-operation, goodwill and consensus-building”.

The third ICAO Conference on Aviation Alternative Fuels is being held in the UAE days before the country prepares to host the Cop28 UN summit on climate change.

The global aviation industry is grappling with pressure to urgently reduce its carbon emissions as passenger traffic moves closer to pre-pandemic levels.

Airlines are intensifying efforts to find adequate quantities of greener fuels that are economically viable, given the industry's thin profit margins.

Reducing aviation pollution is crucial for climate change efforts as the industry generates roughly 2 per cent of global emissions.

With advanced technologies like electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft years away from becoming a reality, SAF is widely considered to be critical for the industry to achieve its climate goals. However, the alternative fuel remains in short supply and is very costly.

The ICAO conference will “constitute a turning point” in the future of the aviation and travel industry, Abdulla bin Touq, UAE Minister of Economy, said at the event.

The conference “will move us to a new stage in the production of aviation fuel, which is more sustainable and low in emissions, contributing significantly to achieving climate neutrality and achieving what we have committed to in the decision … of net zero by 2050,” Mr Bin Touq said.

“We look forward to emerging from this edition of the conference with a clearer path to support the transition towards a green system for aviation fuel production that serves the continued growth of this vital and important sector globally.”

Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, said in a recorded speech that aviation is a hard-to-abate sector but “with innovation and investment, everything can be achieved”.

“A zero-emissions sector means adopting clean energy sources on a global scale. It means economic policies and regulations that can support the just and equitable transition while attracting investors. And it means measures such as carbon pricing, low carbon fuel standards and subsidies for SAF,” he said.

Reaching a global framework on alternative fuels during this conference would be a “critical step towards a clean and prosperous future” for the aviation sector.

“Moving at jet speed, you can speed up the clean energy revolution our world needs. With the Cop28 meeting around the corner, now is the time to turn ambition into concrete action,” he said.

Globally, many countries are taking steps to support the sector's efforts to reduce emissions.

The UAE has created a SAF Road Map to accelerate the decarbonisation of the country's aviation sector and transform it into a regional hub for low-carbon aviation fuels.

It set a target of 700 million litres of SAF production on an annual basis by 2030, which will lead to an estimated reduction of 4.8 million tonnes of CO2.

Aviation is central to the UAE's economy, contributing about 13 per cent to the country's gross domestic product.

Airlines and oil majors in the UAE are taking proactive measures to support the industry's shift to greener operations.

Adnoc, BP, and Masdar plan to develop clean hydrogen and technology hubs to explore SAF production from municipal waste and green hydrogen.

Emirates has allocated $200 million to fund research and development projects focused on advanced fuel technology that can reduce the environmental effects of commercial aviation.

First Emirates flight powered by sustainable aviation fuel

First Emirates flight powered by sustainable aviation fuel

Earlier this month, Shell Aviation supplied more than 300,000 gallons of blended SAF to Emirates at Dubai International Airport.

Etihad and UK-based green aerospace company Satavia have signed a multiyear commercial agreement for contrail management and carbon credits within day-to-day operations.

Aircraft contrails, and vapour trails produced by the exhaust from jet engines, heighten the effect of global warming. Contrails cause up to 60 per cent of aviation’s total climate effects, the equivalent to 2 per cent of all human impact.

Masdar and Airbus have also signed an initial pact to develop sustainable aviation fuels, green hydrogen and direct air capture technology.

Updated: November 22, 2023, 6:13 AM