Steering Middle Eastern aviation growth toward a net zero destination

Balancing climate targets, regional expansion, with sustainable fuel mandates
Steering Middle Eastern aviation growth toward a net zero destination
Net Zero Flight

Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest, is expecting a rise in passenger numbers in 2023 as it hosts the COP28 climate summit. Organizers say they expect more than 140 heads of state, senior government officials, 80,000 delegates, and 5,000 media professionals to attend the summit to be held from November 30 until December 12.

In the two decades since Dubai established itself as an aviation hub, other regional capitals have followed. In 2022,  Dubai handled 66 million passengers in 2022, Abu Dhabi’s new terminal served 15.9 million passengers, and Doha’s terminals welcomed 36 million travelers, partly due to the World Cup. Riyadh is also preparing for expansion, with Saudia ordering 121 planes and a new national airline being launched. Regional cargo traffic, also a growing business, is not reflected in passenger numbers.

While Middle Eastern aviation has experienced significant growth, carbon emissions from the sector will need to be managed to align with net zero targets. Despite some efforts to use sustainable aviation fuels, the current reliance on jet fuel and insufficient alternatives calls for urgent action.

Read: Financial impact of inaction related to Net Zero $1.7 trillion by 2050

Challenges in Achieving Sustainable Aviation

The transition to sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) is in its early stages, with limited availability and scalability. The majority of commercial aircraft still rely on jet fuel, and claims of sustainability by some airlines have been criticized as “greenwashing.” International carriers like Abu Dhabi’s Etihad and Lufthansa have faced censure for unsubstantiated environmental claims. Policymakers at COP28 must address the challenge of reducing CO2 emissions from burning jet fuel. While scaling up electrification has shown promise in road transport, SAF requires significant volume expansion and cost reductions to meet industry needs. The International Energy Agency reports that aviation accounted for over 2 percent of energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021 as the world emerged from the Coronavirus-induced lockdowns of 2020.

Furthermore, there are currently no commercial flights that operate at net-zero emissions, even with experimental biofuel and jet kerosene blends. Carbon offsets are offered to environmentally conscious passengers, allowing them to “compensate” for their flight’s CO2 emissions by “planting trees,” for example, as proposed by the Aviation Environment Federation. However, the efficacy of carbon offsets in guaranteeing carbon-neutral flights remains questionable. While Emirates Airline conducted a test flight using sustainable aviation fuel in January 2023, the lack of sufficient SAF volumes poses a significant challenge to the decarbonization effort.

Aligning growth with sustainable fuel mandates

The Gulf region’s aviation industry faces the challenge of maintaining growth while adhering to stricter sustainable aviation fuel mandates, including the European Union’s proposed legislation through the REFuelEU Aviation initiative. The International Energy Agency estimates that global demand for jet kerosene will account for 57 percent of projected demand growth of 2 million barrels per day in 2023.

In the Middle East, jet kerosene demand has surged by 90,000 bpd due to the region’s major international aviation hubs surpassing pre-pandemic air traffic levels, the IEA said in its May Oil Market Report (OMR). It expects total regional oil demand to rise by 190,000 barrels per day in 2023 of which 80,000 barrels per day would be from jet/kerosene and 50,000 bpd from gasoline.

Long-Term goals and government support

While new aircraft designs have improved fuel efficiency, they have not kept pace with the growth in air travel. According to the IEA, fuel efficiency improved by 2.4 percent in the period 2000-2010 and by 1.9 percent from 2010 to 2019, “demonstrating that additional incremental improvements are becoming more difficult.” the growth in passenger numbers during the same period means that the improvements are “far below what is needed to align with the Net Zero Scenario.”

The aviation manufacturing industry has also faced supply chain issues and rising costs of raw materials due to geopolitical conflicts. Airlines also took a beating during the pandemic as videoconferences curbed business travel and they are now having to contend with higher fuel costs.

Achieving decarbonization in aviation is a long-haul journey that requires political will and government support. Existing infrastructure at airports will also need to be adapted to handle new types of fuel. The EU’s proposed sustainable aviation fuel mandates offer clarity to the industry but also pose potential cost challenges. These mandates aim to decarbonize the aviation sector by progressively increasing the blending of sustainable aviation fuels with kerosene from 2025 to 2050, starting at 2 percent SAF and reaching 70 percent by 2050. According to the EU Commission, “this measure on its own is projected to reduce aircraft CO2 emissions by around two-thirds by 2050 compared to a ‘no action’ scenario, and provide climate and air quality benefits by reducing non-CO2 emissions.”

The sustainable fuels covered by these rules include biofuels, recycled carbon fuels and synthetic fuels such as e-kerosene, produced using captured CO2 and hydrogen. However, the utilization of such fuels remains largely untapped, representing only 0.05 percent of total jet fuel consumption. This emphasizes the urgency and scale of the challenge at hand.

To meet net-zero targets and address environmental concerns, the Middle East’s aviation industry must prioritize research and development of sustainable aviation fuels. Collaboration between governments, airlines, and fuel suppliers is crucial to scaling up production and ensuring the availability of sufficient volumes of SAF. Additionally, investment in research and technological innovation is necessary to explore alternative propulsion systems and aircraft designs that reduce carbon emissions.

At COP28, policymakers and industry leaders must engage in constructive dialogue to develop strategies for sustainable growth in the aviation sector. This includes exploring partnerships with renewable energy companies, incentivizing the production of SAF, and establishing international standards and regulations to accelerate the adoption of sustainable aviation practices.

The significant growth of Middle Eastern aviation must align with tougher net zero targets to combat climate change. The industry’s heavy reliance on jet fuel and the lack of viable alternatives pose challenges in achieving sustainability goals. The Middle Eastern aviation sector, alongside global stakeholders, must prioritize investments in research, development, and infrastructure to transition to sustainable aviation fuels and technologies. Coordinated efforts, supported by political will and government initiatives, are essential to steer the industry toward a net zero destination and ensure a greener future for air travel.

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