Delegates from the UAE attending COP27 will arrive at the climate summit on a net-zero transatlantic Etihad Airways flight, but the sustainable aviation fuel offsetting the flight’s emissions won’t actually be in the plane.
COP27, taking place in Egypt for two weeks beginning November 6th, will see the arrival of guests on the first net-zero flight, operated by Etihad Airways. The UAE airline’s Washington Dulles to Abu Dhabi service will be routed via COP27 venue Sharm-El-Sheik in order to demonstrate the feasibility and necessity of shifting the airline industry to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
“This initiative is about proving Net-Zero commercial aviation is possible, but equally facing up to the significant logistical challenges the industry faces to turn the possible into the routine,” Mariam Alqubaisi, Head of Sustainability & Business Excellence at Etihad Airways, said in a statement.
Offsetting flight emissions
The flight is part of the Greenliner program partnership with Boeing, GE, among others, as well as the Sustainable50 program partnership with Airbus and Rolls Royce. Etihad says the novel flight demonstrates its commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and halving its net emissions levels by 2035.
“Through these programmes, we have run a series of ecoFlights over the past two years to test and validate several concepts, and we have made refining and implementing sustainability initiatives an intrinsic part of our day-to-day operation,” Alqubaisi said. “The Net-Zero flight is the next logical step after our EY20 operation from London Heathrow to Abu Dhabi in October last year, where we reduced emissions by 72 percent compared to the same flight in 2019.”
The 10,000km flight will not be powered by SAF, though. The flight will run on conventional Jet-A1 fuel, and the SAF, provided by fueling partner World Energy, will go to the Los Angeles International Airport fuel system to be used on flights by other airlines as part of a Book & Claim system, which is currently the preferred model of SAF use and distribution. The rerouting of the SAF makes the fuel more widely available for the industry until infrastructure can catch up. The process is verified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) guidance.
“This isn’t about solving only Etihad’s emissions, but about supporting the entire industry to address the biggest challenge we face over the next three decades,” Alqubaisi said.
“Aviation is how the world connects but we are on a collision course as flying people and goods is one of the most carbon-intensive things humans do,” Gene Gebolys, CEO, World Energy, said, praising Etihad for paving the way toward a net-zero aviation future. “Aviation is on an unsustainable trajectory as it is projected to continue to account for an ever-greater share of global carbon emissions. But there is a way off this course. The course correction will come from the fuel tank rather than the cockpit. Together, we can efficiently change the fuel we fly on so we can change the impact of flying.”
SAF is restricted to no more than 50 percent of any U.S.-originating flight’s fuel capacity. Last December, United Airlines piloted the first commercial flight using the maximum allowable amount of SAF, taking passengers from Chicago to Washington, D.C. It used about 500 gallons of SAF, which reduces emissions by about 80 percent compared to petroleum-based fuel.
Etihad, along with government subsidies will cover the additional costs of the SAF. The airline will also trade CO2 avoidance credits.
Global commitment to decarbonize air transport
Etihad’s flight announcement follows the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) announcing its commitment to decarbonize air transport. Following two weeks of diplomacy at the United Nation’s 41st assembly earlier this month, the ICAO set a 2050 target to achieve net-zero emissions for air transport.
The commitment will see the acceleration and adoption of new airlines and technologies, such as lighter planes, and hydrogen-powered planes, as well as increasing allowable limits of SAF per flight.
Aviation accounts for less than three percent of global emissions—far less than automotive transportation—but its impact is expected to rise as income levels and populations increase globally. It’s also one of the more nuanced emissions-producing industries and inherently more tricky and costly to retool.
International flight emissions fall outside of the Paris Agreement; they’re addressed instead under 1947’s Chicago Convention. The Assembly underscored the urgency of moving to decarbonize, with some delegates calling for a third ICAO Conference on Aviation and Alternative Fuels next year to help speed progress.
President of the ICAO Council, Salvatore Sciacchitano, said the measures will “contribute to the green innovation and implementation momentum, which must be accelerated over the coming decades to ultimately achieve emissions-free powered flight.”
ICAO Secretary General Juan Carlos Salazar praised countries attending the event for achieving “tremendous and very important diplomatic progress” on issues he said have “crucial importance to the future sustainability of our planet and the air transport system which serves and connects its populations.”
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