Can aviation achieve net zero by 2050?

Last modified date

low angle photography of plane

The year 2050 is only 26 years away! That’s not much time to achieve the ambitious goal of net zero. The industry, represented by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), has committed to this significant goal, but the question is: how do we plan to get there?

The challenge

For perspective, according to the International Energy Association (IEA), between 2000 and 2019 total CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in aviation rose from 675 Mt to 1,036 Mt. There was a significant reduction during the pandemic, but levels have since risen to 784 Mt in 2022.

Additionally, travel demand is expected to continue growing from 4.6 billion passengers in 2025 to over 10 billion in 2050.

Airline passengers looking out window during a sunset.
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

What is net zero?

Net zero does not mean the industry is emitting no emissions. What it means is when you take the industry’s total emissions and subtract its offsets and carbon removal, you end up at zero. There are arguments that carbon offsetting is not an effective way to reduce emissions, but IATA argues that by investing in green technology they are able to reduce carbon emissions by the equivalent amount.

Achieving net zero through carbon offsetting alone is impractical for several reasons. Realistically, a combination of methods is necessary. As technology improves, the tools used are likely to change, possibly resulting in reduced reliance on offsetting. This shift could lead to a more affordable long-term solution, considering the significant costs associated with offsetting.


At the core of IATA’s net zero strategy is the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). While SAF isn’t completely emissions-free, it significantly reduces CO2 emissions compared to traditional fossil fuels. It’s derived from various sources, including recycled materials and renewable resources, and is compatible with most existing jet engines, making it an ideal option for short-term CO2 reductions.

IATA envisions SAF contributing to a 65% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.

However, current challenges for SAF include availability and cost. The CEO of Boeing has predicted that the cost of SAF will likely never be lower than that of fossil jet fuel. Addressing these costs will require industry and consumer support, possibly with assistance from governments.

The other 35%

Following Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), IATA’s net-zero plan incorporates several key elements:

  • New Technology (13%)
  • Improved Infrastructure and Efficiencies (3%)
  • Offsets and Carbon Capture (19%)

New tech only 13%?

Why does new technology only promise a 13% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050? Wouldn’t electric or hydrogen-powered planes be a fantastic environmental solution? Absolutely, but here’s the catch: 2050 is just 26 years away. While we’ll soon witness the advent of electric and hydrogen-powered planes, scaling up this technology for extensive medium to long-haul flights by 2050 seems unlikely. Developing new aircraft can be a lengthy process, often spanning decades. When the planes are fundamentally different from our current models, this timeline extends even further.

The encouraging news is that technology will accelerate, and beyond 2050, it’s likely to become the aviation industry’s most effective tool for emission reduction.

How much?

Here comes the tricky part: making all this happen won’t come cheap. Everyone involved, from industry players to consumers and governments, has to contribute their fair share. The rationale behind this is that although the current costs may seem high, the longer we delay, the more expensive the solution becomes. Naturally, as industries transition, we’ll witness job shifts towards renewable resources and improved cost efficiencies over time.

The challenge lies in the cost sensitivity of consumers. People often opt for the most affordable flights, prompting airlines to carefully balance their costs and investments in new technology. An illustrative example is the scenario where consumers are asked to offset the CO2 emissions of their flight. In a 2020 report, it was found that of the 44 IATA airlines offering carbon offsetting, only about 1-3% of customers voluntarily chose to offset their flights through the airline.

Why care?

There are several compelling reasons to care about this issue. On a personal level, regardless of my beliefs about climate change, my livelihood is linked to the aviation industry. Any disruptions would have a direct impact on my career. Looking beyond my personal interests, supporting innovation and change is vital for the industry’s overall success, safety, and environmental responsibility. Even if environmental concerns aren’t the primary motivation, supporting initiatives that enhance the industry’s efficiency and sustainability is crucial. It’s easy to assume aviation is a permanent fixture, but it’s worth reflecting on other industries that experienced significant disruption due to innovations driven by consumer demand.

Disclaimer: The author was responsible for crafting the content, ideas, and structure of this post. AI was utilized to enhance clarity and address grammatical/spelling errors. Any opinions conveyed in the blog post are the author’s own.