Waypoint 2050

The effect of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic on the global air transport sector has been stark. At the peak of the shutdown, traffic was down 94% compared with the same period in 2019. Around two thirds of the world’s commercial aircraft were parked or in storage and passengers – business travellers, friends and family and tourists supporting many global economies – were left stranded as governments placed rapid travel restrictions in every part of the globe.

Like many of the world’s citizens, we are looking at the opportunity that the re-start of the economy could provide. How can we continue to connect the peoples and economies of the world, long into the future, but with a much lower footprint? What can we do better?

Aviation has had a long-term climate change plan in place for the last decade. The Waypoint 2050 report, explores how the sector may be able to meet net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, with the support of governments and the energy industry. Some regions and individual companies should be able to get to net-zero earlier than this.

The re-start of aviation is an opportunity to build back the global connectivity and economic benefits air transport provides in a way that sets the industry on a course for decarbonisation. The next decade will be crucial:

  • for government support of the rapid scaling up of new types of fuel so aviation can make an energy transition away from fossil fuels
  • for development of radical new technologies such as electric, hybrid, hydrogen aircraft, as well as radical changes in airframe architecture
  • for collaboration that builds on the already cooperative nature of air transport, but brings in governments, researchers and other sectors
  • to ensure that aviation, along with the rest of the economy, can live up to the Paris Agreement spirit of global cooperation to avoid the worst effects of climate change

Despite the immense challenges of 2020 and the year or two ahead, the industry is united in ambition and innovation for a green recovery.

The Waypoint 2050 report

In aviation, waypoints are significant points on a flightpath that pilots use in navigating their direction of travel. They are neither the start nor the end of a journey, but a guide to where the flight needs to go. In developing a long-term goal, the industry has taken this philosophy to acknowledge that 2050 is not a destination, but a marker on a path towards truly zero carbon emissions from air transport.

In order to reduce the complexity of forecasting across a wide range of variables, Waypoint 2050 has identified consolidated scenarios. These are built on a range of sub-scenarios covering traffic growth forecasts, technology developments, operations and infrastructure improvements, sustainable aviation fuel, and the role of offsets to fill any remaining gaps.

The central traffic growth projection used shows that, by 2050, around 10 billion passengers will fly each year a distance of 22 trillion revenue passenger kilometres. Without any intervention (keeping the current fleet and current level of operational efficiency), this activity would generate some 2,800 million tonnes of CO2 and require over 620 Mt of fuel.

The scenarios below outline how the industry could use technology, operations, infrastructure, sustainable aviation fuels and out-of-sector carbon reductions to bring this down to net-zero at a global level.

Scenario 1: pushing technology and operations

Under this scenario, technology improvements are prioritised and ambitious with the expectation of the emergence of unconventional airframes and a transition of the fleet towards hybrid/electric aircraft in the short-range and <100 seat category with entry into service from 2035/2040.

Significant investments in operations and infrastructure improvements result in substantial improvements and CO2 reductions.

The gap between CO2 emissions after technology and operations and infrastructure improvements and net-zero is fulfilled mainly with the use of sustainable aviation fuels: 90% of fuel is replaced with SAF with a 100% emissions reduction factor by 2050 (around 380 Mt of SAF).

Under this scenario, offsets (mainly in the form of carbon removals) will need to be used to make up any remaining shortfall in emissions above the goal.

ATAG Scenario 1 Graph

Scenario 2: aggressive sustainable fuel deployment

Under this scenario, technology improvements are ambitious with new aircraft configurations such as blended wing body options, although those are based on current powerplant and technologies (not a significant shift to electric or hybrid, with the industry prioritising investment in sustainable fuels).

Despite mid traffic growth, investments in operations and infrastructure result in some net improvements and CO2 reductions.

The gap between CO2 emissions after technology and operations and infrastructure improvements and net-zero is made up of 90% of the fuel supply switching to SAF with a 100% emissions reduction factor (around 445Mt of SAF).

Under this scenario, offsets (mainly in the form of carbon removals) will need to be used to make up any remaining shortfall in emissions above the goal.

ATAG Scenario 2 Graph

Scenario 3: aspirational and aggressive technology perspective

Under this scenario, technology improvements are very ambitious with electric aircraft up to 100-seat, zero-emissions aircraft (powered by green hydrogen) for the 100-200 seat segment and hybrid-electric powered unconventional aircraft configuration for larger aircraft in the 2035-2040 timeframe.

Despite a mid-level of traffic growth, investments in operations and infrastructure result in some net improvements and CO2 reductions.

The gap between CO2 emissions after technology and operations and infrastructure improvements and net-zero is fulfilled with 90% of fuel being replaced with SAF at 100% emissions reduction factor by 2050 (around 330 Mt of SAF).

Under this scenario, offsets (mainly in the form of carbon removals) will need to be used to make up any remaining shortfall in emissions above the goal.

ATAG Scenario 3 Graph
Net Zero