Slow take off: the flight path to net-zero air travel in Southeast Asia

Aviation experts say achieving net-zero emissions for air travel will depend on how fast industry can scale sustainable aviation fuels.

Workers at Changi Airport refuelling an airplane operated by Scoot, the low-cost airline owned by Singapore Airlines. Image: Flickr

The journey to net zero air travel in Southeast Asia will depend on whether new technologies, such as sustainable aviation fuel, can achieve scale, according to aviation experts.

The Southeast Asian aviation industry’s slow recovery from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic has not stopped the region’s major carriers from working towards the industry-wide goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

In February, Singapore Airlines (SIA) and sibling low-cost carrier Scoot announced a pilot programme to switch all of their flights to fuel blended with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by the third quarter of this year. If successful, the initiative could save 2,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or more than 500 cars’ worth of carbon pollution

During his opening speech at Ecosperity Week 2022, a sustainability conference organised by state investment firm Temasek, Minister for Transport S. Iswaran announced that the carbon emissions SIA saved will be used to generate carbon credits. From July onwards, businesses and travellers can purchase these credits to not only reduce their carbon footprint, but also support the development and adoption of SAF in the aviation industry. 

What are sustainable aviation fuels? 

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are derived from renewable sources or waste products such as cooking oil and animal fats. Although it is currently 2 - 6 times more expensive than conventional kerosene, SAFs could reduce the emissions of air travel by up to 80 per cent. 

Besides fuel sources, Iswaran highlighted SIA’s fuel-efficient fleet management. With each new generation of Boeing aircraft being 15 to 25 per cent more efficient than the preceding model, and SIA’s planes averaging only six years old, the Singaporean carrier currently maintains one of the world’s youngest and most fuel-efficient fleets. 

During a panel discussion on sustainable aviation at Ecosperity, Todd Citron, chief technology officer in the research and technology team at aircraft maker Boeing, reiterated the importance of fleet renewal. However he also highlighted three areas in need of improvement. 

“Improving operational efficiency, like the ability to fly directly from one airport to another and the ability to continously descend requires technology and coordination between the aircraft and the various air traffic management systems. [This could result in] a 10 per cent improvement in overall emissions,” he said.

Malaysia has also been gaining altitude in sustainable aviation. Last week, Malaysian low-cost airline AirAsia announced it would be installing an aircraft software modification tweak called the Descent Profile Optimiser on its A320ceo aircraft this month. This programme could save the carrier 101kg in carbon emissions per flight, or 221 tonnes per airplane each year. 

Today, long-haul flights constitute only 25 per cent of air traffic, but cause 75 per cent of emissions. This is an area we need to focus on. 

Bicky Bhangu, President, Rolls-Royce Southeast Asia, Pacific and South Korea 

Aviation experts at Ecosperity agreed that green fuels were crucial for the industry’s transition to low-carbon air travel. “An analysis by the Air Transport Action Group shows that by 2050, SAF alone will provide 70 per cent of the improvements we’ll need to get to net-zero,” said Citron.

“This is far and away the largest contributor to achieving our objective by 2050. Boeing has committed that by 2030, our aircraft will be compatible with 100 per cent SAF, and this includes the ability to retrofit existing aircraft,” Citron emphasised. 

Dr Bicky Bhangu, president of engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce Southeast Asia, Pacific and South Korea, reiterated the importance of SAF, especially for long-distance flights. “Today, long-haul flights constitute only 25 per cent of air traffic but cause 75 per cent of emissions. This is an area we need to focus on, and it requires all partners coming together.” 

Citron stressed the importance of SAF as a viable long-term solution, as the technology required to produce it sustainably, and the airport infrastructure needed to handle it safely and efficiently, is similar to what is available today.

Besides supporting Malaysian Airlines’ first flights by providing blended SAFs, Petronas Dagangan Bhd (PDB), a subsidiary of Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas, announced it was considering plans to improve regional and international supply of SAF by building new biorefineries and processing the new fuel in its existing facilities. 

On 7 June, Tan Sri Abang Johari Openg, premier of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, announced that the province would be working with Brunei and Indonesia to develop SAF from algae, and that the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) would be setting up a laboratory to research new methods of creating SAF. 

With global sea temperatures expected to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next decade, scientists are expecting more frequent and intense algal blooms. The ability to turn unwanted algae into a highly-valued fuel could provide the state with many environmental and economic benefits. 

“Just imagine the population of algae in this archipelago. With the cooperation of Brunei and Indonesia, we can be a producer of SAF,” Abang Johari said at the International Symposium on Digital Industry Transformation 2022 last week. 

Bhangu also highlighted the potential role of hydrogen, electric and hybrid propulsion systems in decarbonising air travel. “Hydrogen’s role is more significant for regional travel. Today, it’s very expensive to produce hydrogen and it takes up to four times the volume of kerosene, so it’s hard to take it on long-haul flights. Full electric propulsion might be suitable for commuters or short-haul flights.” he said. 

Adopting alternative fuel sources will also require advanced technology to make them viable and cost-competitive. Jennifer Holmgrem, chief executive officer of carbon recyling firm LanzaTech, emphasised the roles goverments and financial institutions play in supporting emerging technologies, as solutions are needed quickly if climate goals are to be achieved.

“You could be spending approximately 100 million dollars or more [on these technologies], and it’s risky capital. To [help these projects reach commercial scale], government grants, loan guarantees and offtake contracts are needed to make the project bankable. If we don’t do that, we won’t go fast enough,” Holmgrem said. 

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