“For a sector like aviation to go from an emitting sector to non-emitting sector would require a different set of technologies, and they don’t exist,” said David Hone, Chief Climate Adviser for Shell. “So, the [sustainability] journey that aviation will be on is one of developing new technologies, and also recognizing that the way to manage emissions and reach this zero-point is to purchase offsets from other entities.”

“The scalable solution that exists today is what we call nature-based solutions,” Hone said in a recent interview with Joel Makower, Editor-in-Chief of Greenbiz.com. “The simple one, growing a tree. That can be relatively quickly scaled up. Now, a billion tonnes is a very long journey, and it's going to take some years for that to happen. But every indicator is there that the potential for scale is available.”

Though aviation’s carbon emissions dropped in 2020 due to COVID-19, as flight resumes, emission levels will return and within a few years, likely exceed the 915 million tonnes generated in 2019. That means offsets must work on a large scale to truly mitigate the industry’s carbon impact. Part of the solution will eventually rely on new technologies, but efforts that protect or re-develop natural ecosystems – known as nature-based solutions – can make vital contributions today. In fact, nature-based projects could provide over a third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed by 2030 to stabilise warming to below 2°C.

“Nature-based solutions represent a very scalable option for aviation today,” Hone said. “And they're important because what they represent is a removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that equates to the emissions of carbon dioxide from a flight.”

Nature-based solutions can also deliver benefits beyond CO2 removal, such as offering alternative sources of income to local communities, improving soil productivity, cleaning air and water, and maintaining biodiversity.

Looking beyond nature

In addition to these solutions that store carbon in the biosphere, methods that sequester it geologically are also showing promise. In Iceland, for example, an innovative approach called air capture is being taken to pull CO2 directly from the atmosphere and store it underground. But such experimental methods could take years or even decades to work on the scale aviation requires.

“In the short-term, nature-based solutions represent a real measurable and viable option,” Hone said. “But I think in the long-term, as aviation starts to interface with the accounting structures of industry regulations and agreements, like the Paris Agreement, there's a much wider variety of offsets available.”

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: 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.