The aviation industry plays a significant role in global carbon emissions. Before the pandemic put a temporary damper on air travel, aviation accounted for about 2.5 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, according to McKinsey research, and multiple times that for human climate impact. As other industries decarbonize and aviation continues to grow, that share is expected to increase dramatically. To reach emissions-reduction goals in line with the Paris Agreement by 2050, the industry will need to take aggressive action.
A solid understanding of where emissions occur in aviation will help industry leaders and policy makers target their efforts and achieve results. While some solutions can support decarbonization across the industry, others are better suited for specific segments of the industry.
Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), for example, have the potential to reduce net emissions by as much as 70 to 100 percent versus fossil fuels. SAF is in limited use today because of its high cost and complexity, but a scale-up is under way and over the next decades SAF will play a key role in decarbonization. Additional measures with industry-wide impact include eliminating inefficiencies in operations; modernizing airline fleets with newer, more efficient models; and implementing nature-based solutions to offset any remaining emissions.
The industry could also achieve emissions reductions through green propulsion technologies such as electricity. While these solutions will not be available for long-haul flights nor large aircraft in the next decade or two, they are promising for smaller, shorter-range aircraft. Several companies are already developing hybrid-electric, battery-electric, and hydrogen-fuel-cell-electric options for aircraft in the nine-to-19-passenger range completing short-distance trips of less than 600 miles. Short-haul flights account for more than 17 percent of total airline emissions, making them an important target for decarbonization efforts.
Axel Esque is a partner in McKinsey’s Paris office, Robin Riedel is a partner in the San Francisco office, and Daniel Riefer is an associate partner in the Munich office.
The authors wish to thank Guenter Fuchs for his contributions to this article.