“The biggest challenges are around scaling up the solutions that we've got,” said David Hone, Chief Climate Adviser for Shell.

Last year, production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) was about 14 million gallons, just 0.1% of total aviation fuel. To ramp SAF to even 2% of total aviation fuel output would require investment of $10 billion to build 20 new refineries, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency.

“Once you reach the very large scale that aviation operates on it has to be a commercial proposition. And the only way it's going to work commercially is by doing more of it to drive the cost down, so economy of scale, but also potentially by introducing policy measures such as carbon pricing to draw in these fuels and make them compete against fossil fuels,” Hone said in a recent interview with Joel Makower, Editor-in-Chief of Greenbiz.com.

“The driving force isn't really quite there yet. We're just seeing that driving force awakened both in the public's eyes and the customer's eyes but also in the regulator's eyes. It's ultimately the regulators, I think, that will drive this to a sustainable conclusion because they will demand, because their voters requested of them, that the aviation sector be at net-zero emissions,” Hone said.

Ushering in a “Low Emissions Age”

Most SAF today is made from cooking oils and animal fats. Eventually, other feedstocks such as non-food crops, seaweed and algae, and wood byproducts will play a role, Hone said.

“There are going to have to be new technologies. Today it's a relatively simple hydro-processing technology that's used to convert used oils, vegetable oils and things into aviation fuels. And that's a scalable option. But I think as we move forward and we look at very large volumes of aviation fuel, there'll probably be new technologies as well.”

SAF is a low-carbon solution for aviation because it is made from biomass, and when that biomass grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When the fuel is burned, it returns the same carbon to the atmosphere, where it is then absorbed by new biomass. That creates a closed-loop, net-zero-emissions effect on the atmosphere.

As flight resumes, Hone said the industry may be on the cusp of the “Low Emissions Age”, a time that will fundamentally transform the aviation industry in the same way the Jet Age did.

“It's important to look at the history of the aviation business to try and think about this. This is a business that's grown over the 20th century from nothing to really very significant scale. And it's a business that in the process has fostered change,” Hone said. “We've got to imagine that happening in this transition as well. Now, there's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg thing here, but so who's going to step out and make the big order for new fuels? Or who's going to step out and build facilities that manufacture new fuels and offer them into the market?”

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: How Can Aviation Usher in a “Low Emissions Age”?

The aviation industry is running out of time to deploy carbon-mitigation tools, such as sustainable aviation fuel, and consumers are increasingly demanding that airlines take action today. David Hone, Shell’s top climate adviser has warned that the short window in which to act poses a risk that the sector will fail to hit its goal to halve CO2 emissions by 2050 relative to 2005.

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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.