The question on everyone’s lips is: Can aviation ever be sustainable? After all, it is one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonise, and no silver bullet can eliminate the industry’s emissions in one fell swoop. Emirates Airlines is often identified as an industry front-runner, but will it also become a sustainability leader?
Emirates and the big picture
Aviation contributes to 2.5 per cent of emissions, emitting around 100 times more CO2 an hour than other forms of transportation. With the number of global air passengers set to nearly double over the next 20 years, the need for net-zero aviation has never been greater.
In 2021, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and called for the whole industry to work together with a supportive government policy framework. Commenting on this, Mark Pilling, an independent UK-based aviation journalist specialising in sustainability topics, called the 2050 target “a huge ask” but said the pressure is rising for the target to be brought forward “by 5, 10 or 15 years” and that some players are “already responding with more aggressive targets.” Adding: “It is likely the 2050 target may only be an initial aiming point for aviation.”
That said, in the same year as the IATA commitment, Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airlines, warned the industry about over-promising, strongly questioning the feasibility of cutting 40% of emissions by the decade’s end. Yet, in recent years, the airline has implemented a wave of sustainability projects and initiatives, including its energy efficiency program, responsible operations strategy, and biodiversity and conservation efforts.
An Emirates spokesperson said sustainability and the planet’s environmental future are important to the company, and it is “deeply aware” of its position to advocate for change: “Our journey in that regard has never been showing off our initiatives and programmes at COP28,” they said. Adding: “Our longstanding efforts have been and continue to be rooted in tangible, meaningful actions across three focus areas that form our environmental framework: reducing emissions, consuming responsibly and preserving wildlife and habitats.”
Emirates did not share specific details regarding its net-zero goal, or Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions targets.
Leonard Favre, Managing Partner at 1BlueHorizon Management Consulting, called Emirates an “airline industry front runner” and said it is set to focus on implementing sustainable aviation technologies and pursue “incremental” as well as “disruptive change.” He outlined: “In the particular context of sustainability, the focus is definitely on investing in new aircraft technology to prepare for the after A380 legacy, carbon offsetting methodology and using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).”
Meanwhile, Pilling said it is “inconceivable” Emirates will not become a leading player on the sustainability front but highlighted that its work has “mostly been behind the scenes so far.”
Emirates and SAF developments
Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is being highlighted as the key to sustainable flying, at least until other technologies mature. A mix of hydrocarbons chemically similar to conventional jet fuel and derived from feedstocks, SAF, has been found to lower CO2 emissions from aviation by up to 100%, depending on the feedstocks used.
Emirates is making advancements in this area. Toward the end of January, it announced it had operated its first milestone demonstration flight on a Boeing 777-300ER, powering one of its engines with 100 per cent SAF, having worked with partners GE Aerospace, Boeing, Honeywell, Neste and Virent to develop a blend of SAF closely replicating the properties of conventional jet fuel. The company outlined this demonstration flight supports future certification where 100% drop-in SAF fuel is approved for aircraft.
At the time, Adel Al Redha, Chief Operating Officer, Emirates, shared hopes that the demonstration would open the door to scaling up the SAF supply chain, improving availability, accessibility and affordability for broader industry adoption. And that is currently an issue; scalability. SAF accounts for less than 1% of the fuel used by airlines, is two to four times more expensive than conventional jet fuel, and scaling SAF production to the level required demands vast amounts of feedstocks. In the UK, for example, the Royal Society outlined that to replace 12.3 tonnes of jet fuel consumed annually, the amount of land required would equate to over 50 per cent of the total agricultural land in the UK.
Making SAF affordable and accessible is paramount, considering, as Favre explains, current aviation fuels are not only the “origin” of CO2 but simultaneously the single largest operational expense, accounting for nearly 30-40 per cent of expenditure in an average year. Scientists also argue that SAF needs a technical definition, as not all SAFs are created equal when it comes to environmental footprint.
An Emirates spokesperson outlined the company “strongly supports” the development of a viable commercial supply chain for SAF. “If it can be produced at scale and sold at commercially viable prices in the next few years, our hope would be for SAF to make up a substantial portion of our total fuel supply in the future.”
The spokesperson added that while considerable progress has already been made within the SAF industry, there remains much more work to be done across the aviation value chain, including “supportive government policies and frameworks to incentivise its production and ensure successful commercialisation and scalability of SAF to help address both market and regulatory barriers.”
Pilling forecasts more to come from the airline regarding the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel “during this decade.” He outlined: “I would expect it to play a larger role if and when SAF production in the UAE takes off.” Favre added that Emirates has the credibility to gather the industry to “go beyond SAF,” describing it as a “win-win for all.”
Non-CO2 emissions, carbon capture technologies and offsets
Of course, carbon emissions are not the only emissions released through aviation. There are also non-CO2 effects from flying, which include oxides of nitrogen (NOx), soot particles, oxidised sulphur species, and water vapour. These all contribute to global warming. In fact, estimates are that non-CO2 emissions account for two-thirds of total climate warming from flying, yet they have continued to fly under the regulatory radar.
It is true that while cutting carbon emissions is complicated enough, experts say that tackling non-CO2 emissions is even more complex. Some proposals include flight re-routing, adjusting the times and seasons when flights are taken, lowering aircraft altitude, and closing airspaces for different durations. These proposals could reduce non-CO2 impacts significantly, but they all come with regulatory challenges, and research is ongoing.
Discussing some of the ways the company is targeting this issue, Emirates highlighted the implementation of its comprehensive fuel efficiency programme that “effectively reduces” unnecessary fuel burn and emissions. “This includes “flex tracks”, or flexible routings – where we partnered with air navigation service providers to create the most efficient flight plan for each flight. These efforts have been ongoing since 2003, and Emirates has been working with IATA to extend this routing system across the world as a standard operating procedure where possible.”
Likewise, direct-air carbon capture (DAC) is increasingly highlighted as key to offset the aviation emissions that can’t be cut. The technology uses a large fan to draw air into an air contactor; it then passes over thin plastic surfaces covered in a potassium hydroxide solution. This binds with the CO2 removing it from the air, where it becomes a carbonate salt and goes through several chemical processes to prepare it for either re-use or storage.
Several airlines are investing in this technology, including Airbus and Air Canada; however, some have argued it is just a distraction from reducing carbon emissions. Similar arguments are made about offsets. Environmental group Greenpeace, for example, has called offsets a “scam,” while international environmental campaigning network Friends of the Earth dubbed them a “dangerous distraction.”
Emirates said it recognises its customers would “welcome” the ability to purchase carbon offsets for their flights and is looking into “various options.” “There has been criticism about some of the carbon offset projects in the market, and we are conscious that any programme that Emirates partners with, should offer good quality and verified projects,” the airline asserted.
Will airline sustainability take off?
Emirates, like other airlines, is indeed driving forward various innovative sustainability solutions within aviation, whether through its support of SAF development and scalability, enhancing operational efficiency, or efficient flight plan development. It claims its sustainability commitments are tied to “meaningful” action, which is key in a world of pledges and promises.
One thing is for sure, the impact of an industry front-runner getting serious about sustainability could be transformative for aviation. Competition in this area will only lead to progress, and with just 27 years to meet the carbon-neutral goal, it’s needed now and fast.