Watch Now


Air cargo sector plays bigger role in CO2 emission reductions

Sustainability assist comes as IATA, US government push for more production of green aviation fuel

An EVA Air Cargo jet refueling at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The air cargo industry is doing its part to help airlines achieve their collective goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 but leaders are looking for more support from governments, starting at this week’s gathering of international aviation regulators in Montreal. 

The International Air Transport Association on Wednesday called on the International Civil Aviation Organization to endorse the industry’s decarbonization road map and to agree on coordinated policy measures to incentivize production of sustainable aviation fuel. 

Last year the aviation sector agreed on a plan for achieving clean air transport that relies on sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) for the bulk of CO2 reductions because hydrogen and electric propulsion technologies won’t be ready by midcentury to power larger aircraft.

Currently only about 0.1% of fuel consumed by commercial aircraft is SAF, according to aviation consultancy IBA. It costs two to four times as much as conventional jet fuel.

Achieving pollution targets will require commercial SAF production at scale, proponents say. IATA estimates 119 billion gallons will need to be produced annually to get to net-zero carbon by midcentury. Current investment commitments from energy companies and aviation partners will take production from 33 million gallons per year to 1.3 billion gallons by 2025. Effective government incentives could push production to 8 billion gallons by 2030, the amount needed to achieve economies of scale and make the fuel affordable.

“SAF is the key to achieving net-zero emissions. Airlines used every drop that was available in 2021. And it will be the same this year. The challenge is SAF production capacity,” said Brandon Sullivan, IATA’s global head of air cargo, in an address to the group’s World Cargo Symposium in London. “The solution is government incentives. With the right incentives, we could see 30 billion liters (8 billion gallons) of SAF by 2030. That would be a tipping point by 2030 towards our net-zero ambition of ample SAF quantities at affordable prices.” 


In a virtual press briefing from Montreal, IATA Director General Willie Walsh added, “You don’t need to mandate the airlines to buy it. Airlines will buy the product if it’s made available, even at prices 2.5 to 3 times the price of kerosene. … We need the traditional suppliers to turn their attention to sustainable fuels.”

The European Union is proposing a 2% SAF blending mandate by 2025, with rising targets to 2050.

SAF is mainly produced from biomass. In the future, synthetic fuels will also be available, including a so-called power-to-liquid concept based on renewable electricity, water and CO2. SAF can be blended with regular jet fuel and used in existing engines. Manufacturers are developing engines that will be able to accept 100% sustainable fuel.

Sustainably produced SAF can reduce life cycle carbon emissions by up to 80% compared to aviation fuel derived from fossil fuels.

At the Global Clean Energy Action Forum in Pittsburgh last week, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called sustainable aviation fuel “the most important tool in our arsenal” to help decarbonize air travel. She was there to release a comprehensive plan that outlines a governmentwide strategy for working with industry to scale up new technologies to produce SAF for airlines nationwide. Last year, the U.S. government set two goals for sustainable aviation fuel: production of 3 billion gallons by 2030, a 600-fold increase from 2021, and 35 billion gallons by 2050 — enough to meet the entire projected U.S. demand for aviation.

The road map lays out six action areas, including innovations in feedstock and conversion technology, building supply chains for fuel delivery and storage, and enabling end use at airports.

“Not only is sustainable aviation fuel critical to decarbonizing the airline industry and reaching our climate goals, but this plan will help American companies corner the market on a valuable emerging industry,” Granholm said.

Cargo makes sustainability strides

Air cargo stakeholders are taking concrete steps to tackle carbon emissions and promote sustainable fuels.

IATA announced Tuesday it will test a CO2 emissions calculation tool specifically developed for cargo flights together with Etihad Airways. The trial will provide a proof of concept for a cargo version of IATA’s CO2 Connect, which began providing data on passenger flights in June. The tool is aimed at helping airlines, shippers, forwarders, investors and regulators obtain emissions information from their shipments so they can manage their commitments and reporting obligations.

“We need to be able to demonstrate our progress towards net zero. Every industry is being asked to report on their carbon footprint. And that includes our customers,” Sullivan said. “So it is critical that we are able to measure our carbon output and report it accurately by shipment.”

CO2 Connect calculates carbon data for 57 aircraft types representing most of the global passenger fleet by measuring fuel burn and load factors.

Calculating the carbon impact of cargo shipments is more challenging because of unpredictable routing at time of booking an air cargo shipment that can often include non-air segments. In addition, cargo can be carried on both dedicated freighter aircraft and in the lower hold of passenger aircraft. 

To achieve equal levels of accuracy as the passenger calculator, it is important to collect actual data on fuel burn, load factors and other key variables in trials, IATA said. Using airline-specific and actual fuel burn information, and load factors, allows the tool to give a more accurate picture than theoretical data models. 

An airport fuel truck. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

IATA will work with Etihad Cargo to track the necessary data for cargo shipments during a three-month trial. Etihad will share flight data and advise on various use cases to ensure the most precise, consistent data is gathered.

The trade association said it intends to launch CO2 Connect for Cargo by mid-2023.

Last week, the cargo and logistics arm of Etihad Airlines became the first Middle Eastern carrier to participate in The International Air Cargo Association’s BlueSky program. TIACA launched the multi-sector sustainability verification program in May. 

Participants initially follow a desktop verification process to assess their progress against eight  sustainability criteria: decarbonization; waste elimination; biodiversity protection; support for local economies and communities; impact on society improvement; efficiency and profitability; employee engagement, retention and development; and partnership building.

Later phases of the program will include the option for a full onsite audit with an in-depth report that highlights areas for improvement.

Over the past year, Etihad Cargo has embarked on several green initiatives, including the replacement of more than 3,000 aluminum containers with lightweight versions. The lighter unit load devices can eliminate more than 440 pounds on an average widebody flight and help reduce fuel consumption. Etihad also is helping develop a passive cooling technology for refrigerated units that doesn’t require an external power source.

Lufthansa Cargo

On Tuesday, Lufthansa Cargo announced that Japanese freight forwarder Kintetsu World Express has committed to use SAF for one year, reducing by 5% its total CO2 footprint for shipments transported by the airline. In addition, the company will offset well-to-tank emissions generated during the production and provision of alternative fuel with the help of certified climate protection projects.

“Climate change is getting more and more obvious and devastating everywhere in the world. As an asset-light freight forwarder, reducing our scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions is key to winning the battle against global warming,” said Kintetsu CEO Nobutoshi Torii.

Scope 3 emissions are ones that result from assets not owned or controlled by the company itself.

Lufthansa Cargo, which operates 15 Boeing 777 freighters, said it has been able to replace about 2% of its annual fossil fuel requirements with SAF in 2022.

The SAF used by Lufthansa Cargo comes from used cooking oils, animal fat waste or forest and agricultural waste. 

The news follows parent company Lufthansa Group’s August agreement with Shell International Petroleum to explore the possibility of supplying SAF for seven years at airports around the world, starting in 2024. A final deal could result in Lufthansa buying up to 594 million gallons of the fuel, which would be Shell’s largest SAF commitment to date. Details that must still be determined include how pricing will be set.

Shell plans to use up to four different approved technology pathways and a broad range of sustainable feedstocks to produce the SAF.

Lufthansa Group’s latest sustainability goal is to halve net CO2 emissions by 2030 compared to 2019 and to achieve a neutral CO2 balance by 2050.

Lufthansa Cargo is also targeting CO2 output through fleet modernization, more efficient use of fuels, carbon offset programs and reducing emissions during ground activity. 

In the past year, the airline completed the turnover of its fleet from older MD-11 tri-engine freighters to twin-engine 777s. It recently ordered seven next-generation 777-8 cargo jets from Boeing, which will be ready later this decade.

Lufthansa Cargo is also in the process of equipping its entire fleet with a low-friction, shark skin-like coating that reduces aerodynamic drag, producing an annual savings of almost 4,080 tons of jet fuel — equivalent to about 50 individual freighter flights from Frankfurt, Germany, to Shanghai. Since 2020 it has also exclusively used lightweight containers and also uses squAIR-timber, a product made from recycled cardboard fiber that is 80% lighter than traditional wood pallets.

Since October, Lufthansa Cargo has also been one of the first customers of the world’s first power-to-liquid fuel plant in Emsland, Germany. Together with one of its customers, Lufthansa Cargo has committed to purchasing at least 20 tons of the synthetic crude oil annually over the next five years in order to help advance the technology.  

Air France KLM Martinair Cargo has a program under which several logistics companies power a percentage of their flights with SAF. In July, Bolloré Logistics expanded its participation from a single route to all routes operated by group airlines. The arrangement will allow Bolloré Logistics to reduce its scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 75% throughout the year, the companies said.

Bolloré also recently teamed up with United Airlines to purchase more than 790,000 gallons of SAF in response to customer demand for lower emissions footprints.

Freight forwarders Airflo and Tiger Freight in November signed up to use SAF on AFKLM flights from Kenya and Zimbabwe carrying flowers and perishable food products. The companies contribute by covering the over the difference in price between conventional aircraft fuel and SAF

Both Air France-KLM and Lufthansa have committed to having their CO2 emissions reduction targets validated by the Science Based Targets initiative to ensure the targets are in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change.

In March, DHL Express committed to purchase more than 211 million gallons of SAF from BP and Neste over five years in one of the largest deals for sustainable aviation fuel to date. 

The contracts, together with DHL’s previous intention to use SAF at three airports, will exceed 50% of the company’s target to reach 10% SAF blending for all air transport by 2026. DHL expects the collaborations to save about 2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the aviation fuel life cycle — equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of approximately 400,000 passenger cars.

The amount of fuel to be purchased is enough to power 1,000 annual DHL flights between its hubs in Cincinnati and Leipzig, Germany, operated by Boeing 777s for about 12 years, assuming 100% SAF usage, according to DHL.

DHL Express is also decarbonizing with an order for a dozen electric cargo jets from Eviation Aircraft and efforts at the airport level.

Mike Parra, CEO of DHL Express for the Americas, said at an aerospace event in Washington this month that the company is exploring hydrogen electric pushback tugs used to maneuver aircraft and putting solar panels on terminal buildings. And it is working on a coalition right in Kentucky to try to bring SAF to the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, where DHL’s main U.S. hub is located.

Asia capacity

Earlier this month, Cathay Pacific extended its carbon offset program to its cargo division. A new tool calculates the carbon emissions of shipments and the cost to offset them. Customers can then make a contribution to purchase carbon offsets from selected projects.

The offset program follows the launch earlier this year of Cathay Pacific’s corporate SAF program, which brings SAF into Hong Kong International Airport for the first time in history. It provides corporate customers the opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint from business travel and air cargo shipments by contributing to the use of SAF. Early participants include DHL Global Forwarding and Kintetsu World Express.

Cathay Pacific said the purpose of the program is to stimulate the manufacturing and supply of SAF, particularly in Asia.

“As the SAF supply is still limited to a few airports today, we believe that Cathay Pacific’s SAF program is an important signal to the market and will help to build a market for sustainable fuels in Asia,” said Steffen Treiber, senior vice president for airfreight Asia-Pacific at DHL Global Forwarding, in the May edition of Cathay Pacific’s Cargo Clan newsletter.

Cathay Pacific has committed to 10% SAF in its total fuel use by 2030. It signed an agreement in September with Aemetis to supply 38 million gallons of blended SAF over seven years, beginning in 2025, at San Francisco International Airport.

The SAF will be produced at the Aemetis plant currently under development in
Riverbank, California. The facility will use waste wood to produce cellulosic
hydrogen, and combine it with wastes and non-edible sustainable oils. It will then
be converted into SAF using carbon-neutral hydroelectricity.

On Friday, Korean Air announced the signing of a preliminary agreement with Shell to purchase SAF at major airports in the Asia-Pacific and Middle East for five years, beginning in 2026.

Korean Air in February also signed a cooperation agreement with Incheon International Airport Corp., Airbus and Air Liquide to supply aviation hydrogen fuel and develop related infrastructure in Korea. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

Subscribe to the American Shipper Air newsletter

WHAT TO READ NEXT:

Boeing CEO: Promises about clean aviation fuel outpace technology

Lufthansa invests in next-gen Boeing 777-8 freighters

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]