Net zero emissions target for airlines to cost $1.7trn

Monday May 01 2023
Royal Australia Force aircraft

Excess fuel is dumped from a nozzle protruding from the left wing of a Royal Australian Air Force aircraft. World Economic Forum report reveals costs of transitioning from fossil fuel propulsion of aircraft to alternative forms like electricity and liquefied hydrogen could significantly hike airlines’ operating costs. PHOTO | AFP


Airlines and other aviation stakeholders across the globe will need to spend up to $1.7 trillion to achieve the industry’s net zero emissions by 2050 goal, an investment projected to significantly hurt profits.

An assessment by World Economic Forum (WEF) reveals that the costs of transitioning from fossil fuel propulsion of aircraft to alternative forms like electricity and liquefied hydrogen could significantly hike airlines’ operating costs.

In a whitepaper exploring how the aviation industry will attain the net-zero emission goal by 2050, WEF said that although the resources needed to green the sector are enormous, they should be acquired if the goal is to be achieved.

Available options

“Given that the share of aviation’s global warming impact is set to rise significantly if action is not taken, the sector must consider all the options available for decarbonisation,” said David Hyde, WEF’s aerospace projects lead.

The aviation industry accounts for about two percent of the Carbon Dioxide emissions, but this is projected to rise as several other sectors continue to decarbonise at an increasing pace.


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According to WEF, operators of airlines will need to partner with other industries, especially in the energy sector to generate enough electricity and to coordinate investments regionally to make the transition possible.

The industry will need 1.7 trillion kilowatt-hours of clean energy – about 21 percent of the current global renewable energy produced every year – to transition into carbon-free propulsion of aircraft. Airports are projected to consume about 5–10 times more energy by 2050 to support the alternative propulsion.

Most of the energy will be used for liquefying hydrogen and the rest for charging batteries of electric aircraft.

To meet the increased energy demands, the international airports would need about 5,800 hectares of solar panels, which is practically impossible as only three airports globally are even that large.

Besides the high energy demands, the required infrastructure will also need high investments which the airline and airport operators might not shoulder by themselves. Of the $1.7 trillion dollars required, about 90 percent will go into the construction of off-airport power-generation infrastructure.

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Investment must start now

But despite these high costs associated with this transition, the globally economic lobby warns that the investments needed for the transitioning of the sector must start now if the 2050 deadline is to be met.

“The first elements of on-airport infrastructure must be in place by 2025 to meet expected energy demand,” WEF said in the whitepaper meant to chart the path into alternative propulsion for the aviation industry.

“It is important that stakeholders across the value chain, from governments to airports to electricity and hydrogen players to airlines begin planning and investing in ground infrastructure,” said Robin Riedel, a Partner at McKinsey and Company, which co-published the whitepaper.

The 2050 zero-emission goal was adopted at the International Civil Aviation Organisation convention in Montreal, Canada, last October. It involved – among other measures – CO2 reduction through “the accelerated adoption of new and innovative aircraft technologies".

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But given the high costs this process will involve; it remains unclear whether airlines and their stakeholders – including governments – will fully adopt it within WEF’s recommended timelines.

In the region, none of the state carriers and their hub airports has made any steps towards the establishment of the needed infrastructure.