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Journey to net-zero: The ‘fleet inertia’ challenge

Hitting 2050 target requires drastic acceleration of carbon mitigation initiatives, as aircraft technology alone cannot provide the solution.

Andrew Doyle, Cirium

Andrew Doyle, Senior Director – Market Development, Cirium

Global jet fuel demand is forecast to hit almost half a billion tonnes by 2050 – a more than 40% increase over 2024 – bringing into stark focus the challenge the industry faces in achieving its self-imposed net zero emissions target. This is based on the prediction by Cirium sister data and analytics provider ICIS, that growth in the fleet of conventionally powered aircraft will see overall fuel usage increase by an average of 1.5% annually over the next 25 years.

ICIS Jet fuel demand forecast

Although incremental aircraft and engine technology advances will continue to bring some efficiency improvements, the overall expansion of the commercial fleet – coupled with the fact that aircraft being delivered today are likely to remain in service for an average of around 25 years – means huge volumes of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will be needed if the industry is to have any hope of achieving net-zero by 2050 (the specific challenges relating to the scale-up of SAF supply will be examined in more detail in the next instalment of this series).

The ICIS fuel demand forecast is supported by Cirium Ascend Consultancy’s projection that as far out as 2042 more than two-thirds of the global single-aisle mainline passenger jet fleet will be comprised of the same generation of aircraft and engines being produced today, while on the widebody side the figure will be in excess of 60%.

The trend for advances in aircraft and engine efficiency to be outpaced by overall fleet growth has persisted for decades. According to an analysis published by the Air Transport Action Group, emissions per revenue tonne kilometre fell by 54% between 1990 and 2019, and yet absolute emissions doubled.

Fleet inertia presents a huge challenge to decarbonisation from a technology perspective

Fleet inertia presents a huge challenge to decarbonisation from a technology perspective

The latest edition of the Cirium Fleet Forecast (CFF) predicts the delivery of some 46,260 new commercial passenger and freighter jet and turboprop aircraft over the 20 years between 2023 and 2042. Forecast traffic growth will require the global passenger fleet to increase by around 23,000 units, which equates to a 3.2% annual growth rate, taking the inventory to some 49,320 jet and turboprop aircraft at the end of 2042, according to the CFF. The freighter fleet will grow by 2.6% annually to reach almost 4,200 aircraft.

The turboprop sector is the only one with realistic potential to deliver a fundamental step change in propulsion technology during this timeframe. While there are no electric or hybrid-electric airliners specifically included in the CFF, these will likely be the next powerplant directions for this market, albeit at the smaller end of the sector. Programmes in development include a 30-seat battery electric airliner, hydrogen-electric powertrains for retrofit on nine to 80 seaters and a hydrogen fuel cell powered 50-seater, which is in flight test with retrofits planned for DHC Dash 8s and ATRs.

However, currently just 3% of CO2 emissions are from aircraft with 100 seats or fewer flying sectors below 1,000km. Conversely, long-haul twin-aisles made up 51% of CO2 emissions in 2019, and are by far the hardest to replace with electric/hydrogen-powered aircraft.

Timescales for new technology aircraft introduction

Timescales for new technology aircraft introduction

The path to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 for the aviation industry is fraught with significant challenges, in large part due to the ‘fleet inertia’ problem and the substantial increase in global jet fuel demand. While advancements in aircraft and engine technology will contribute to incremental efficiency gains, they are unlikely to counteract the rapid growth of the commercial fleet.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will play a critical role in bridging this gap, but its scale-up poses considerable obstacles that require urgent attention.

The future may hold promise for electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, particularly in the turboprop sector, yet these technologies remain limited in scope and impact.

As we look ahead, it is imperative for industry stakeholders to accelerate carbon mitigation initiatives and explore innovative solutions to meet the ambitious 2050 targets. Stay tuned for the next installment in our series, where we will examine the specific challenges and potential solutions related to the scale-up of SAF supply.

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