Beyond 2050: Is Sustainable Air Travel Possible In The Long-Term?

Is sustainable air travel possible in the long-term future? Currently, most carriers are attempting to reach carbon neutrality, but whether these measures are adequate in the long term is yet to be determined. This article will discuss current and near-future methods for achieving carbon neutrality and their efficiency in the long term.

How Efficient Are Carbon Offsets?

Currently, most carriers promote sustainability on their flights by offering carbon offsets. While these offer environmentally conscious passengers the opportunity to alleviate any guilt about flying, the efficiency of these offsets is questionable at best and puts the responsibility and onus onto the passenger rather than the company.

A recent investigation by The Guardian suggests that carbon offsets may not be as environmentally friendly as once thought. Carbon offsets are an optional add-on to tickets, where customers can purchase ‘carbon credits’ alongside their tickets. These values are determined by the percentage of carbon released by their journey. These credits are converted into ‘offsets’ by carriers, who transfer to offsetting projects to invest their value into various environmental schemes. These include forestry schemes, sustainable household appliances and hydroelectric dams, mostly across developing countries.

A Pie Chart shows the efficiency of the top 50 carbon offsetting projects. about 78% of these were largely worthless in their goal of offsetting carbon emissions. The efficacy of the remaining 22% was either questionable or could not be determined due to a lack of public information
The efficiency of the top 50 carbon offsetting projects. Graph created by Bella @ Travel Radar with data from The Guardian.

The Guardian analysed the top 50 carbon-offsetting emissions projects. Their study found that about 78% of these were largely worthless in their goal of offsetting carbon emissions. The efficacy of the remaining 22% was either questionable or could not be determined due to a lack of public information. The study found that about $1.16bn (£937m) worth of carbon credits had been traded for junk.

Carbon-Neutral By 2050 – Or, How Sustainable Is SAF?

In October 2021, during their 77th annual general meeting, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) approved a resolution for the aviation industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Rather than an offset program, IATA emphasised using Sustainable Aviation Fuel, or SAF. Carbon offsets comprised just 19% of this roadmap, perhaps appropriately considering their inefficiency.

4 pie charts show contributions to achieving net zero carbon in 2050. 65% is down to SAF. New Technologies, Offsetting, and infrastructure / re operations make up to the other 35%
Pie Charts detail projected SAF required in the lead-up to 2050. Graphic produced by Bella @ Travel Radar with data from the IATA.

Sourced from either animal or plant waste (as opposed to fossil fuels), Sustainable Aviation Fuel, or SAF, is chemically identical to conventional jet fuel. Therefore, SAF can be blended with traditional jet fuel or used independently. The use of sustainable aviation fuel instead of standard jet fuel has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by up to 80%. In addition to IATA’s pledge, carriers in the European Union are now under the added pressure of regional legislation on how much sustainable aviation fuel must be used.

But just like its fossil-fuel counterpart, SAF has limitations, largely concerning production. Legislation has been criticised with concerns regarding the supply of SAF and how suppliers will meet the coming demand. SAF is largely sourced from waste cooking oil and fat, and resources are finite. Demand for SAF is expected to increase rapidly in the coming decades, according to the IATA, which foresees 90 billion litres of fuel required in 2030.

A bar chart detailing expected SAF required for Net Zero 2050. In 2025, 8 billion litres are required. in 2030, 25. In 2035, 90. in 2040, 229. iN 2045, 346. And in 2050, 449 billion litres.
A graph details projected SAF required in the lead up to 2050. Graph produced by Bella @ Travel Radar with data from the IATA.

Although SAF production is increasing rapidly – it tripled in 2022 at 300 million litres – there is still a long way to go to make 2025’s target, and research is not entirely optimistic. The Royal Society projected that suppliers in the United Kingdom are highly likely unable to meet consumer demand. Transport & Environment have declared the majority of SAF sources – animal fat, crop-based fuels, and advanced biofuels –  unsustainable because they compete with food production or are too finite.

Although E-Kerosene is defined as a sustainable alternative to jet fuel, its potential far outweighs oil and crop-based biofuels – a report by Transport and Environment found that significant legislation needs to be introduced by the EU before use is feasible. 

IATA’s Waypoint 2050 report found that replacing all jet fuel with SAF is feasible over the coming decades, but the study only judges availability up to 2050.  The question of what happens after 2050 remains.

But judging by sustainability trends, the demand for SAF may give way to something much larger.

Electrifying Aircraft, Or The Future Of Air Travel

In a report by Allied Market Research, the electric aircraft industry is expected to undergo a major shift in the near future. In 2021, the global electric aircraft market size was valued at $8.5 billion. Just one decade later, AMR projects it will reach $23.5 billion.

Unlike sustainable aviation fuel, electricity is not finite, suggesting that using it to power a jet – rather than crop-based fuels or re-used animal fat – is preferable, justifying the increasing demand for electric aircraft. However, like SAF, whether suppliers can satisfy this demand is questionable.

Take-Off

On the 27th of September 2022, Eviation’s Alice made history as the first all-electric passenger aeroplane to take flight. The 9-passenger plane boasts lower operating costs than a conventional airline and can currently fly around 600 miles.

Eviation's Alice takes flight.
Eviation’s Alice takes flight. © Eviation.

Although primarily advertised as a business-class commercial flight, Eviation has also suggested its use as a cargo carrier. The plane has a volume of 450 cubic feet and is temperature-controlled.

During their 2022 Hangar Day Conference, Heart Aerospace announced numerous partners in developing their 30-seater electric plane, the ES-30. With competitive pricing and a carbon emission reduction of over 50% per seat in comparison to 50-seat turboprops in longer sectors, the plane has garnered investors across carriers and airports.

A list of Heart Aerospace's partners for the development of their ES-30. Among these are Air Canada, SAS Group and United.
Heart Aerospace’s full list of partners for the development of their Es-30. © Heart Aerospace, taken from their Hangar Day Presentation

Heart also announced the partners involved in producing the ES-30. The ES-30 counts global investors, with Japan’s Toki Air, Aotearoa’s Wellington Airport, North America’s United and Air Canada and Scandinavia’s SAS Airlines.

David Morgan, Chief Pilot of Air New Zealand, announced his excitement about beginning to work with Heart. More significantly, however, he noted that his customers would welcome the investment:

“The customer is king, and it’s what they actually want.. and that is sustainable air travel, going into the future”

This factor of Mr Morgan’s speech was especially significant because he recognised the demand for sustainable aviation beyond sustainable aviation fuel or carbon offsets. His reference to the “future”, without mention of SAF, demonstrates a mindset that extends beyond 2050.

Heart Aerospace's ES-30. Perhaps an answer to the question is sustainable air travel possible ?
Heart Aerospace’s ES-30. © Heart Aerospace

Heart Aerospace projects the ES-30 to enter service in 2028. By the late 2030s, the electric plane is expected to run flights up to 600 kilometres. For reference, a flight from London to Dublin is about 591 Km.

Bye Aerospace, based in Denver, CO, is also developing its answer to growing interest in electric aviation. Although first and foremost developing the E-flyer 2, a two-seated aircraft developed to help new pilots train without incurring fuel costs, the airline’s E-flyer 800 pro suggests new developments for commercial flying. Bye Aerospace expects to receive full approval for the eFlyer 800, an 8-seat electric plane, by late 2025 or early 2026.

Although their carrier is comparatively smaller than Heart’s, the Eflyer 800’s “twin-turboprop performance and safety with no CO2 and extremely low operating costs” have led to the company drawing deposit agreements with several Europe and US-based carriers. Excitingly, the plane also includes potential solar cell supplementation.

However promising these projects and investor interest may be, their place in the future of air travel ultimately depends on advancements in battery technology. Although planes like the ES-30 are attractive for short-haul flights, especially judging by their comparatively lower operating costs, they cannot cover the same distances as conventional jets. This is largely due to the power of their batteries or how long they can fly without recharging.

Is Sustainable Air Travel Possible?

So, is sustainable air travel possible? Yes, certainly, but perhaps not in the same way we travel now. If electric aircraft is the future of sustainable aviation, passengers may have to cut down on long-haul flights. Depending on battery developments, passengers may have to rely on alternative modes of transportation.

IATA argues its goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050 is feasible, but some carriers aren’t convinced. Beyond 2050, therefore, long-haul travel may be threatened depending on the availability of sustainable aviation fuel. Although still in its infancy, E-Kerosene presents a promising alternative to crop and waste-oil-based biofuels, but only time (and further research) will tell if this is viable.

Even short-haul flights – which, judging by price proposals, may be replaced by train rides – may be declared entirely unsustainable in the long term. Although consumer and carrier interest in electric aircraft demonstrates the potential for further research on longer-lasting batteries, it remains uncertain if passengers can fly as much as they do now.

What do you think about the future of Sustainable Aviation Fuel? Do you think more steps should be taken towards sustainable air travel? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Bella Pelster
Bella Pelsterhttp://www.travelradar.aero
I'm a Londoner with a huge passion for travel, history and sustainability. In my spare time I love reading novels (any genre, any author) and watching television and films (mostly the sopranos)!
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