Decarbonizing aviation: This is what the shift to alternative propulsion will require

By Andrea Willige, Senior Writer, Forum Agenda | May 9, 2023
  • Migrating to carbon-neutral aviation such as battery-electric and hydrogen flights could require up to 1,700TWh of clean energy by 2050.
  • This is the equivalent of 10-25 of the world’s largest wind farms today – or a solar plant half the size of Belgium.
  • Large investments are needed – and soon – to adapt airport infrastructure for new value chains around electric and hydrogen flight.

Migrating aviation to carbon-free fuels could require up to 1,700 terawatt hours (TWh) of clean energy by 2050. To generate this amount of power, it would take the equivalent of between 10 and 25 of the largest wind farms in the world today, or a solar farm half the size of Belgium. These are the key takeaways of a new whitepaper on decarbonized aviation co-authored by the World Economic Forum and McKinsey.

Aviation accounts for over 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions and has grown faster than road, rail or shipping. In 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that aviation emissions had bounced back from the disruption of pandemic lockdowns in 2020, regaining a third of the drop it had realized that year.

The IEA’s net-zero emissions by 2050 scenario (NZE) sees aviation emissions rising further to the end of the decade. This will mainly be driven by emission growth in international flights while domestic emissions are expected to plateau.

Decarbonizing aviation

The industry will have to work hard to curb its energy consumption while moving to low-carbon and carbon-free alternatives from the fossil aviation fuels currently used.

To help this transition, the US Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge, announced in September 2022, offers funding to demonstrate new fuel and aircraft technologies. Similarly, the European Union Parliament and Council have just agreed the ReFuelEU Aviation regulation. It mandates that aviation fuel suppliers increase the amount of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) they deliver to 70% by 2050, and that airports have suitable infrastructure for alternative fuels.

Alongside SAF – which includes the likes of biofuels, recycled carbon fuels and synthetic aviation fuels (e-fuels) – experts estimate that aircraft running on hydrogen and battery-electric powertrains could make up around a third of the global commercial and cargo aircraft fleet by 2050.

Battery-electric and hydrogen-driven flight needs new infrastructure

The whitepaper, titled Target True Zero: Delivering the Infrastructure for Battery and Hydrogen-Powered Flight, identifies two new value chains emerging for battery electric and hydrogen-based propulsion.

Overall, the shift to these propulsion technologies will require a capital investment of between $700 billion and $1.7 trillion by 2050.

A share of these investments will go into the development of aircraft, ranging from battery-electric planes for short-range flights to larger and longer-range aircraft retrofitted to use hydrogen fuel cells.

Timeframes to adopt alternative propulsion, by technology up to 2050

Alternative propulsion is predicted to ramp up substantially between now and 2050. Image: World Economic Forum.

In addition, airport infrastructure will need to be adapted. However, the vast majority of this investment – some 90% – will be required off-airport. This will include facilities for power generation and transmission, hydrogen pipelines, green hydrogen production, liquefaction and distribution to aircraft.

A day in the life of hydrogen-based airport infrastructure

On- and off-airport infrastructure will need to be adapted to meet the needs of electric and hydrogen aircraft. Image: World Economic Forum.

While the investment needs of new infrastructure will vary according to airport size, the authors of the whitepaper expect the costs to be of a similar scale as other upgrades, such as building terminals.

These requirements mean operators will face costs of around 86% above the market price for green electricity and around 76% for hydrogen as part of the operating costs of their migration to carbon-free propulsion.

Developing carbon-neutral aviation in partnership

It’s a tall order and the aviation industry must start to ramp up now if it is to meet 2050 goals.

Entering into partnerships with other industries will be vital in the process, not least to secure enough green electricity and hydrogen supplies, which are still highly constrained. The whitepaper suggests that large airports could consume up to 10 times more electricity by 2050 compared to today as the industry migrates to electric and hydrogen propulsion.

As a major future consumer of alternative fuels, aviation needs to have a place at the table when it comes to shaping the future of the surrounding ecosystem.

The whitepaper follows the Clean Skies for Tomorrow report published in 2020. The Forum has also initiated a Clean Skies for Tomorrow coalition, which recognizes the need for investing in carbon-neutral flying and rapidly scaling sustainable aviation fuel production.

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Climate Champions.

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