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Rolls-Royce CEO calls for aviation to adopt top-flight sustainability targets

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Warren East, who heads the aircraft engine maker, has joined other industry leaders in calls for more work to reduce the carbon emissions associated with aviation.

Aviation, which accounts for approximately three per cent of CO2 emissions, is considered a hard-to-abate sector due to a lack of technologically mature alternatives to traditional jet-fuelled engines.

With electric and hydrogen aircraft still relatively limited, short- and medium-term decarbonisation efforts are focused on efficiency measures and lowering the carbon emissions of jet fuel by mixing conventional fuel with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). SAF takes various forms, but is often produced from biomass such as from crops and animal fats.

Under current UN plans, at least 10 per cent of fuel used in aviation should be sustainable by 2030. East has said that in order to avoid growing its share of emissions, the aviation sector must reach beyond this target.

“Flying generates between [two and three per cent] of global emissions but, as easier-to-abate sectors decarbonise, that proportion will increase, so shortening aviation’s journey to net zero with action in the opening phase of this 'Decisive Decade' would be a huge win for the world,” said East. “However, we will only create the focus and momentum required to achieve that if we ratchet our collective ambition beyond the current target of achieving 10 per cent SAF usage by 2030.”

Rolls-Royce also announced a commitment to ensuring that its Trent engines, which are at the heart of many of the world’s aircraft, will be able to run purely on sustainable fuel by 2023. At present, a 50:50 mix of traditional and sustainable fuel can generally be used without changing aircraft engines. Airbus aims for its aircraft to be able to run on pure SAF by 2030.

In 2019, the aviation sector used 290 million tonnes of fuel. EU statistics show that, at present, SAF makes up just 0.05 per cent of jet fuel consumed. SAF is approximately eight times more expensive than conventional jet fuel and, with expensive sustainability measures likely to be a lower priority than coronavirus recovery for most airlines, there is concern that the sector will be hesitant about the transition.

East’s urging of the sector to embrace SAF is echoed by public statements from Shell and Airbus.

Shell, which is transitioning its business towards lower-carbon fuels in order to avert a potential existential crisis, is planning to build a biofuels processing plant at its Rotterdam refinery by 2024, focused mainly on SAF. It is also developing synthetic aviation fuel produced from recycled carbon and hydrogen. The company hopes to increase production rapidly; to two million tonnes annually by 2025. This is 10 times the total produced globally at present.

Shell’s president of global aviation, Anna Mascolo, commented: “The aviation sector is moving towards net zero, but we need to accelerate.”

Airbus chief technical officer Sabine Klauke said: “There are multiple solutions to catalyse the global transition to decarbonised aviation, be it developing and maturing new technology pathways, seeking improvements in operations and infrastructure, and committing to an industry-wide scale-up in the uptake and production of sustainable aviation fuels.”

A study published by the European aviation sector in February laid out a possible pathway to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The plan involves cutting 92 per cent of emissions using hydrogen and hybrid-electric propulsion, SAFs, carbon pricing, and air traffic management. The remaining emissions would have to be offset through carbon capture and storage.

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