Critical insights on the path to a net-zero aviation sector

Countries have set ambitious net zero emissions targets by 2050, and working with industries like aviation is a key step in achieving that goal. The Mission Possible Partnership (MPP) is an alliance of climate leaders focused on decarbonizing seven industrial and transportation sectors—including aviation. MPP and McKinsey & Company recently developed a sector transition strategy outlining how the aviation can phase out fossil fuels by 2050. That strategy is based on MPP modeling that yielded several key insights.

The goal of net-zero aviation by 2050 is possible—provided industry makes the right investments

The MPP methodology charted two potential pathways for aviation through 2050—business as usual and a more ambitious approach. The ambitious approach is one potential pathway for the industry, that sets a bold ambition given the urgency of climate change.

In the business-as-usual (or BAU) pathway, the aviation industry seeks the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO) for flights, implementing new technologies only if they offer an economic advantage or there is a favorable regulatory environment. The BAU pathway does not achieve net zero in 2050 and generates 40 Gt of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) of cumulative emissions between 2022 and 2050 (10 percent of the remaining global carbon budget for 1.5°C, up from the industry’s current contribution of approximately 2.5 percent of CO2 emissions).

In the climate ambition pathway, evolving technology and a willingness to pay a TCO premium of 20 percent to 50 percent for emissions-reducing technologies eliminate approximately 25 Gt of CO2e emissions between 2022 and 2050, phasing out fossil jet fuel entirely by 2050.

Achieving that goal will require an additional average investment of approximately $300 billion each year in excess of BAU. Of that total, disruptive aircraft technologies represents only $15 billion per year. A far bigger share will be required to finance the production of renewable energy capacity and related infrastructure.

In a climate-ambition pathway, fossil jet fuels would be entirely phased out by 2050.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are the most viable short-term solution, though battery-electric and hydrogen propulsion will play a role in the medium- and long-term

SAFs are the only viable near-term option to decrease emissions in the aviation sector, as they are compatible with current aircraft engines and fueling infrastructure and can power flights with no distance limits. In the climate ambition pathway, 25 to 30 percent of the sector’s energy demand in 2030 could be met by SAFs.

In the medium and long term, more novel propulsion solutions will be needed. Battery-electric propulsion could, under optimistic projections, become an option to reduce CO2e emissions on short-haul flights starting in 2025. Hydrogen propulsion technologies, including fuel-cell and combustion powered aircraft, will be crucial for reducing CO2e emissions for mid-to-long-haul flights. Overall, hydrogen could cover up to 25 percent of the total energy demand in 2050.

Industries will compete for renewable energy

Decarbonizing aviation—including power-to-liquids and hydrogen—could require an additional 10,000 TWh of renewable electricity, comprising about 10 percent of global electricity production in 2050. This surge in demand will likely coincide with the electrification of other sectors like road transport, an increased demand for hydrogen or hydrogen-derived fuels, and the overall transition of the power sector from fossils to renewables.

In the face of competing demand, it will take collaboration across the major players and institutions to support the transition to net-zero aviation. Objectives of this collaboration could include ensuring feedstock sustainability, supporting R&D for new pathways to market, de-risking private investments for infrastructure, and stimulating demand through measures that appropriately factor in the cost of jet fuels’ CO2e emissions.

For the full set of 10 critical insights, download the report published by MPP.

Elena Gerasimova is a consultant in McKinsey's London office; Adam Mitchell is an associate partner in the Toronto office; Kritika Rastogi is a consultant in the New York office; Robin Riedel is a partner in the San Francisco office; and Daniel Riefer is an expert associate partner in the Munich office.

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