Carbon offsetting is the only green strategy airlines can take at the moment, according to an EasyJet executive, because the production of sustainable aviation fuel is not sufficient to meet demand.
David Morgan, director of flight operations at the budget carrier, told a panel session on sustainability at the virtual World Aviation Festival that EasyJet offsets the fuel from all of its flights because other options are not possible.
“Frankly, at the moment, it is really the only thing which an airline can do, because even if we wanted to run the whole airline on SAF (sustainable aviation fuel) at the moment the production is simply not there,” Mr Morgan said.
“We should keep a little bit more of an open mind as to credible offsets that can be used at the moment … and perhaps as an industry be a little less snobbish about the use of carbon offsets in the very short term. We know that it's an interim measure until [there is] better technology and [a] wider use of other types of fuel.”
The aviation industry is coming under pressure to build back greener following the devastating hit it has suffered as a result of the pandemic, with planes grounded, borders shut and tumbling revenue.
The sector contributes 2 per cent of global carbon emissions and has pledged to reduce net emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2050.
However, some members of the industry are demanding more ambitious climate change targets be put in place ahead of the Cop26 climate change summit in Glasgow in November.
On Wednesday, on the eve of an online climate change summit hosted by US President Joe Biden, the EU agreed on a target to cut carbon emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030.
Mr Biden is expected to announce steep cuts to US emissions levels, while Britain is set to unveil a target to reduce emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, with new legislation affecting shipping and aviation.
Sustainable jet fuels are produced from sustainable feedstocks, such as cooking oil, waste oils from animals or plants, or solid waste from homes and businesses, such as packaging or food scraps.
They have been used by the industry since 2008 and can help to reduce outright emissions, but so far this represents barely 1 per cent of the fuel used worldwide, industry groups say.
Anna Mascolo, president of Shell Aviation, said the aviation sector needs sustainable fuel at a scale and pace to meet carbon emissions targets.
“We are nowhere near that. Even if all the projects that have been announced materialise in the coming two or three years, we are going to end up producing four million tonnes of SAF and that's 1 per cent of expected demand in 2030, so we are still far behind that,” Ms Mascolo said.
Lauren Riley, managing director of global environmental affairs and sustainability at United Airlines, said the aviation industry faces "a chicken and egg situation" to meet new emissions targets because there is not enough supply of sustainable aviation fuels to “support mandates anywhere in the near term”.
“There are no immediate solutions other than offsets,” she said.
However, she said positive incentives from policymakers can help to drive production and attract new producers, something she has seen in California through the low carbon fuel standard, which aims to decrease carbon intensity and provide a range of low-carbon alternatives.
“It's really promising and our view is really in support of positive government policy and incentives to really move the market in that direction,” she said.
Earlier this month, United Airlines partnered with global firms including Nike and Siemens in an “Eco-Skies Alliance” to finance use this year of about 3.4 million gallons of low-carbon, sustainable aviation fuel derived from rubbish.
Although tiny compared with the 4.3 billion gallons of jet fuel that United consumed in 2019 before the pandemic, the amount triples the roughly one million gallons of sustainable fuel it has used each year since 2016.
Ms Riley said United has also been working with a coalition of producers and other airline unions to propose a tax credit in the US that can help to close the price gap between conventional fuel and sustainable aviation fuel.
“SAF is two to four times the cost of conventional, so for an airline right now, given the impact of the pandemic on our financial circumstances, that's very difficult for us to present that business case, and pay for that premium associated with a lower carbon fuel,” Ms Riley said.
Ms Mascolo said the scalability and cost challenges mean the industry cannot hide the fact that "it has an economies of scale issue".
With the size of the challenge so high, Ms Mascolo said supporting mandates and policies need to be put in place, as well as a strong regulatory environment and fiscal incentives.
“We cannot do it on our own and the global industry needs to be globally aligned," she said.
Mariam Al-Qubaisi, head of sustainability and business excellence at Etihad Aviation Group, said the industry should also learn lessons from Covid, where the vaccination rollout started before testing was fully complete.
This approach could be used to accelerate the adoption of sustainable aviation fuels, Ms Al-Qubaisi said.
"Sometimes we just have to test things and put them out there, not just through eco flights as we have at Etihad but also through trials and other programmes with our industry partners just to see these technologies through more quickly," she said.
Earlier in the week, Willie Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said the aviation industry can meet emissions targets being set out by governments such as the UK, which plans to be net zero by 2050.
"Our industry has always stood up to the challenge. I think we've been very progressive," Mr Walsh said.
"I'm delighted to see, as we've gone through this crisis, the worst financial crisis in our history, airline CEOs continue to be focused on the environment."