Nov 9, 2021 - Energy & Environment

U.S. unveils roadmap for net-zero aviation emissions by 2050

Photo of a Delta Airlines plane

Photo: Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images.

The Transportation Department is unveiling a multi-agency roadmap to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. aviation sector with a target of reaching net-zero by 2050.

Why it matters: Aviation accounts for around 3% of global carbon emissions, but has other warming impacts too. It accounts for 11% of U.S. transportation-related emissions, according to the White House.

  • Those emissions are projected to rise a lot in coming decades alongside the growth of air travel, absent aggressive adoption of climate-friendly tech.
  • In a hypothetical case of technology frozen in place, the strategy estimates that U.S. aviation emissions in 2050 would be around twice their 2019 levels.

Driving the news: The department just released its first "Aviation Climate Action Plan" that aims to further R&D and deployment of technologies that attack the problem in a suite of ways.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is discussing the plan at appearances at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

  • A very big part of the plan seeks to help spur development and uptake of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) for long-haul flights, as well as battery and hydrogen propulsion on shorter routes. SAFs do the heaviest lifting in the department's pathway to net-zero by midcentury.
  • Another goal is to help speed efficiency gains, with a target to "demonstrate a suite of aircraft technologies by 2030 to achieve a 30% improvement" relative to today's best tech.
  • While burning jet fuel comprises the vast majority of the sector's emissions, airports generate CO2 through ground operations, which is also a focus of the plan.

Of note: The net-zero target covers emissions from flights within the U.S. and its territories, as well as U.S.-based airlines' international flights.

The intrigue: Beyond CO2, the plan aims to get a better handle on other warming impacts of flying like "aviation induced cloudiness," or AIC, which includes contrails.

  • "Recent estimates indicate that the AIC warming effect could be comparable or even higher than those due to aviation CO2 although large uncertainties still remain," it states.

What we're watching: The Transportation Department is already using existing tools, such as providing over $300 million in funding this year to help electrify airport equipment.

  • The administration's multi-agency "sustainable aviation fuel grand challenge" program launched last month.
  • A separate effort is the joint NASA-Federal Aviation Administration "Sustainable Flight National Partnership" launched earlier this year to demonstrate new technologies in areas like electric propulsion, high efficiency designs and more.
  • The newly enacted bipartisan infrastructure bill has at least $100 million for projects to cut airport emissions, the department said.

The bottom line: More help from Congress is also likely needed to help put U.S. aviation on anything resembling the pathway envisioned in the report.

  • The Democrats' big spending and tax package includes new tax credits for SAFs, but the future of that package remains unclear.
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