Setting a flightpath to net-zero emissions in turbulent conditions
Dec 18, 2020
It perhaps seems strange that in a year when so many of us were not able to travel abroad to visit family, experience other countries or for business, that the aviation industry’s importance to society was reaffirmed in such a vital way.
The role that aviation continues to play in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic remains critical. Transporting medicines, medical equipment and keeping global supply chains functioning – companies across the sector, including airlines, cargo operators, airports, manufacturers, fuel providers, and many others, have all played an essential part.
Yet, there can be no doubt it has been a devastating year for the sector. In May, global passenger traffic was down by 91.3% year-over-year1. During that time and in the months since, at Shell Aviation our focus has been on working closely with our customers and being agile to meet their evolving needs. Although it will take time for the industry to rebuild, IATA’s November outlook for the industry predicts passenger numbers could return to pre-Covid levels around 2024 as aviation plays its role in economic recovery.2
But we predict that recovery will be more than a return to business as usual. There has been a resounding call for a global green recovery, turning this moment of crisis into an opportunity to pave the way for accelerated sustainable growth. In addition to rebuilding the industry, the other urgent challenge on aviation’s horizon remains unaltered – decarbonisation. Societal pressure to reduce aviation’s emissions has not diminished – if anything, it has increased with calls for more rapid and ambitious action3.
And just as no country, company or person can tackle the pandemic alone, tackling climate change requires a global coordinated response involving all parties and all available measures.
A net-zero world
As a society, we need to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius, ideally below 1.5 degrees4. As tackling climate change is mainly about the use of energy, that means that society needs a net-zero energy system.
Businesses will need to adapt their strategies, innovate and develop technologies to support the transition to a lower carbon future. Energy producers and suppliers, like Shell, have a role in enabling this shift. Currently, about 85% of Shell’s carbon footprint comes from our customers’ emissions when they use our products.5 So, we have a role in helping our customers decarbonise, working with society to help it reach net-zero.
In April 2020, Shell announced that it aims to be a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050 or sooner, in step with society and our customers. This means change. It means that we aim to be net-zero emissions from making our products and reducing the carbon intensity of the products we sell. It will involve selling more biofuels, and hydrogen for example.
Finally, we, as a business that supplies energy, will work with the aviation industry and other sectors to help them find their own path to net-zero emissions. This year we have focused on leveraging the limited solutions available today whilst taking the action needed to develop the technology and market conditions that can have an impact in the future.
Becoming a net-zero emissions energy business is a huge task. The business plans we have today will not get us there. So, our plans must change over time, as society and our customers also change.
The importance of collaboration
Tackling emissions in a sector like aviation is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Faced alone it is overwhelming – everyone needs to take a piece at a time. Every party that benefits from flight can play a role in reducing emissions.
We’re already seeing this shared responsibility in collaborations to promote the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF); the only current alternative to jet fuel. We have established agreements with leading SAF producers in World Energy and Neste, working together to increase the availability of SAF supply to our customers, such as Amazon Air and DHL Express, and agreed the purchase of SAF from new production facilities being developed, such as Red Rock Biofuels’ biorefinery in Oregon.
We have also been collaborating across the value chain on existing and emerging aircraft technologies. We recently started work with Rolls-Royce, supplying SAF for tests that will explore the potential for the use of 100% SAF in aircraft engines. Together, we are working towards a long-term goal of certification and simplifying SAF’s safe integration into mainstream supply infrastructure. With regards to low carbon fuels beyond SAF, just this month, Shell Ventures invested in ZeroAvia as it progresses its hydrogen-electric aircraft engine programmes. Hydrogen offers exciting potential for reducing emissions from smaller planes on short flights, alongside the continued use of SAF and other measures.
Collaborating within and beyond aviation
Despite the positive steps taken, it remains the case that SAF currently represents less than 1% of total jet fuel volume.6 To address the interconnected issues of demand, supply and production, there is a need to collaborate within and beyond the industry to help level the playing field.
Governments and international bodies play an important role here, as the introduction of a robust policy framework is essential to drive investment and encourage SAF supply and demand. As a founding member of the Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) Initiative, Shell Aviation has been working with leaders across aviation and governments. As set out in a CST policy paper published in October, policy mandates will play a key role – helping to encourage both increased SAF supply and demand from airlines and airports.
This year has also seen momentum towards sustainable aviation grow on a country level. This summer, we were pleased to participate in the first meeting of the UK Government's Jet Zero Council hosted by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
We know from conversations with our customers, that they too value dialogue and external perspectives. As a way to help share knowledge, spark dialogue and encourage action, earlier this year we launched our Flightpath conversation series. We were pleased to host experts – ranging from leading NGOs to SAF producers – and hear their insights on the challenges aviation must navigate in order to reach net-zero.
Despite the drastic shift in the external environment, across the year our priorities have remained consistent – to collaborate with others to provide our customers with options to decarbonise aviation.
2020 has reminded us that we achieve more when we work together. This collaborative approach to solving challenges is the spirit that built the aviation industry we know today and will be crucial to its success in tackling emissions while accelerating the pathway to net-zero carbon emissions. We look ahead to 2021 with a renewed sense of optimism – supporting our customers as they take steps to resume operational capacity. As the industry looks to a green recovery, Shell Aviation is ready and eager to work with parties across our industry towards net-zero emissions.
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