US targeting net-zero aviation by 2050; heavy focus on SAF

11 November 2021

At COP26 in Glasgow, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced the US Aviation Climate Action Plan, published by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which sets out to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the US aviation sector by 2050.

The document focuses on technologies that could substantially reduce the emissions from the commercial fleet of aircraft. As such, it does not focus on the use of electricity nor hydrogen, which could be used in small, short-haul aircraft. While the electrification of these aircraft would only have a small impact on GHG emissions, the use of electrification as a means to power general aviation could have considerable air quality benefits as many small, short-haul aircraft are powered by leaded aviation gasoline.

Analysis of future domestic and international aviation CO2 emissions. Analysis conducted by BlueSky leveraging R&D efforts from the FAA Office of Environment & Energy (AEE) regarding CO2 emissions contributions from aircraft technology, operational improvements, and SAF. Source: US Aviation Climate Action Plan

Key initiatives in the plan include:

• Increasing production of sustainable aviation fuels: Sustainable fuels produced from renewable and waste feedstocks can provide the greatest impact in the effort to reduce aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Such fuels will be critical to the aviation industry’s ability to meet the net-zero emissions goal and they have the potential, on a lifecycle basis, to slash emissions by up to 100%, the US said.

• Developing new aircraft technologies: Through the Sustainable Flight National Partnership, NASA and the FAA are working with industry to accelerate the development of more efficient aircraft and engine technologies targeting up to a 30% improvement in fuel savings compared to today’s planes, while also delivering substantial noise and emissions reduction benefits. New and more efficient narrow-body aircraft could enter the US fleet in the 2030s and new wide-body aircraft in the 2040s.

• Increasing operations efficiency: While the US National Airspace System is efficient, there are opportunities to reduce fuel burn in all phases of flight. These includes boosting efficiency during taxiing, takeoff and landing, as well as flying optimized trajectories. Research shows that aircraft operations also affect the climate through non-CO2 emissions, especially via contrails and aviation-induced cloudiness. The US government is supporting research to cost-effectively reduce some of aviation’s climate impact by limiting contrail formation.

• Cutting airport emissions, boosting airport resilience: The government provides incentives to reduce emissions from airports through several programs, including, among others, the Zero Emission Vehicle Program, which provides grants to replace or convert ground vehicles for zero-emission vehicles, and the Energy Efficiency Program, which provides funding to identify and implement energy reduction measures at airports. The Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP), sponsored by the FAA, helps airports identify climate risks and boost resilience.

The announcement follows the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Grand Challenge, a government-wide initiative designed to catalyze the production of at least three billion gallons per year by 2030. Earlier this year, the FAA announced more than $100 million in matching grants to increase aircraft efficiency, reduce noise and aircraft emissions, and develop and implement new software to reduce taxi delays. The agency has also invested more than$300 million to electrify airport equipment and solicitation to find a sustainable air traffic control tower. This builds on provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure legislation, including investments in electric vehicles and public transit, that will further address carbon emissions in the transportation sector.