“The timeline that's been laid out by the science community is relatively short now because we've had decades of not doing enough collectively as society and so the time we've got left to actually do something is diminishing rapidly,” said David Hone, Chief Climate Adviser for Shell.

“And it's diminishing now to the point at which it's hitting up against the minimum commercial time that you need to get these big processes up and running and so that means that there is no opportunity left for delay. It's as simple as that,” Hone said in a recent interview with Joel Makower, Editor-in-Chief of Greenbiz.com.

The industry has committed to cutting net emissions to half of 2005 levels within 30 years, and the challenge is a big one. While electric cars are already rolling down the world’s roads, electric passenger planes are not expected to be widely deployed for decades. In the meantime, the industry will have to deploy a number of measures and tools, including sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), carbon offsets, and incremental technological and operational efficiencies.

SAF in particular is seen as key for the industry to meet its carbon goals. Yet SAF production was only about 4 million gallons last year – just 0.1% of total aviation fuel production. That could rise to 10% in 2030 and 20% by 2040, according to forecasts by the International Energy Agency.

A sleeping giant stirs

Airlines that take a wait-and-see approach risk being caught up in backlash from consumers and politicians frustrated with perceived inaction, Hone said.

“First of all, there's the simple physics of the climate issue. The climate is starting to change and that's bringing about cost to society and therefore social and political pressures to reduce emissions. That's real and that's happening today,” Hone said. “And it's not just the climate itself, which is already starting to shift, but it's people's recognition that this shift is underway and their desire to want to see changes made to limit that shift.”

“It's the customer that is really going to be one of the driving forces in this process. These customers, today, I think, represent a sleeping giant. They're starting to wake up and recognize that air travel has sustainability issues associated with it.”

Climate sustainability is business sustainability

Scrutiny is also starting to come from investors and other stakeholders in the business who recognize the risk of not managing emissions.

“Nobody in the long-term will invest in an unsustainable business,” Hone said.

Social attitudes are already shifting, whether it’s the “flight shame” movement that started in Sweden, Blackrock making sustainability one of the fundamentals of businesses it invests in, and a growing chorus of climate-related commitments from companies such as Amazon, Delta Airlines, and Microsoft.

“There are real leading indicators out there that something is happening,” Hone said. “But it didn't exist two or three years ago and it's moving rapidly.”

Hone said the likelihood was growing that the mounting social concerns over climate will spur politicians and governments into actions to curb emissions growth.

“And that could set another trend, a legislative trend that becomes very hard to manage and very difficult to address. It's much better to do this on terms that you can manage yourself, on programs that you can implement yourself, and implement with your partners.”

Watch: Sustainable fuel – a low-carbon solution for aviation

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on aviation, it hasn’t changed the reality that the industry must figure out how to fly and emit less. Sustainable aviation fuel holds great promise in helping the aviation industry reduce carbon emissions, but carbon pricing and other policy measures are likely needed to help spur the investment to scale production to meaningful levels, according to Shell’s top climate advisor.

Watch: Turning to nature to tackle emissions

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented disruptions in global aviation. But as signs of recovery take hold, the industry finds itself still facing the challenge of reducing carbon emissions and meeting the growing consumer demand for airlines to reduce their environmental impact. Nature-based projects, like planting trees and protecting forests, offer the best way for the aviation industry to reduce its carbon impact today and at scale, though cutting-edge solutions such as facilities that scrub CO2 directly out of the atmosphere hold great promise longer-term, according to Shell’s top climate adviser.

Watch: Why carbon pricing matters

Carbon pricing policies are designed to change the cost of goods and services, favouring those that result in lower emissions. That is why they work so well. Both the tax and trade-based approach deliver new revenue to the government which can be used to ensure that consumers are not left out of pocket. And with strong political backing, their implementation will be straightforward. This in turn creates opportunities for low carbon fuels, products and services.

Aviation futures: perspectives from climate change advisor David Hone

The aviation industry accounts for nearly one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually against a global total in excess of 40 billion tonnes, which means it is around 2.5% of total emissions. However it is a high growth sector without obvious alternative energy carriers, implying that as other emissions fall and aviation continues to rise, its fraction of the total increases rapidly. Should global emissions fall by 50% in the same time that aviation doubles, then that fraction becomes ten percent.

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Watch: Nature’s role in tackling aviation emissions

Airlines are feeling pressure to curb CO2 emissions today. Until sustainable fuel and technology solutions are deployed to help avoid and reduce emissions directly, the industry will also need comprehensive carbon offset programmes if it is to meet its net emissions reduction targets. The Nature Conservancy’s Chris Webb points to airlines’ opportunity to benefit from the most effective carbon sink “technology” available today: nature itself.

Watch: What will it take to scale sustainable aviation fuel?

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the aviation industry hard. But as airlines chart a path to recovery, part of their return must include reducing the industry’s contribution to climate change. Bryan Sherbacow, Chief Commercial Officer of biofuel producer World Energy, discusses what it will take to help sustainable aviation fuel scale to the point where it will be competitive with conventional jet fuel.