Visitors look at the model of Solar project of Masdar at the Masdar pavilion at the opening of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week and World Future Energy summit at ADNEC. Image Credit: Abdul Rahman/Gulf News

Today’s aviation industry is reliant on liquid hydrocarbon fuel. Even with laudable progress on electric and solar capabilities, which will improve over time, the demand for mass travel over ultra-long distances necessitates a dependence on jet engine technology with liquid fuel.

Significant strides in engine and airframe technology have been made since jet engines first took commercial passengers into the air in 1952. Today’s passenger aircraft generate 80 per cent less emissions per seat than the first aeroplanes produced more than 65 years ago. Each time we get a new-generation aircraft, it is at least 10 per cent, and up to 25 per cent, more efficient than an aircraft it replaces.

Nevertheless, the industry recognises its obligations to do more, especially with ever-increasing demands for global travel. A series of ambitious goals set in 2008 include a commitment to work towards ‘carbon neutral growth’ from 2020 onwards, requiring emissions to be contained within the year 2020 baseline limit. With encouragement from the industry, this aspiration was adopted by the industry’s global regulator, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), through a mechanism which will require airlines to purchase eligible carbon offsets to match any growth in emissions above the limit.

While offsets will be required for some years, we hope to meet our goals eventually ourselves through advances within the industry. So confident is the international aviation industry regarding its progress that our most ambitious goal is that by 2050 our emissions will be reduced to half the levels observed in 2005.

With a reliance on current engine technology, an area of focus is on liquid hydrocarbon fuel with a lower carbon footprint, achieved by using alternative feedstock to fossil fuel. Here in Abu Dhabi, Etihad Airways has been working with Khalifa University (formerly known as Masdar Institute), Adnoc Refining, Boeing and others, through a Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium, on an exciting and innovative concept.

The system is known as the Seawater Energy and Agriculture System (Seas), which, in addition to being a source of fuel, can yield a sustainable food source, despite the challenges of a desert environment.

Seas is an integrated model based around seawater fish and shrimp farming, which itself helps support the domestic demands for seafood and bolsters food security for the growing UAE population. The wastewater from this aquaculture element, heavy with nutrients, is fed to fields of Salicornia, a halophytic, or salt loving, plant with numerous oil filled seeds. This oil, with the expertise of Adnoc Refining, is the basis of the next generation of jet biofuel.

This month, all elements of this system come together as we take flight with our first Emirati-grown fuel. Our work in the UAE is the first time outside of the United States where the entire supply chain — feedstock, refining and flight — have occurred locally. The oil from the Abu Dhabi-grown seeds will be converted to jet fuel, using the refining capabilities of Adnoc Refining, mixed with traditional fuel and used on a commercial flight out of Abu Dhabi.

This is a truly inspiring example of a synergistic effort across industrial platforms that brings value across the supply chain and strengthens the UAE’s reputation as a leader in innovation, sustainability, and the creation of knowledge.

Alongside this, Etihad Airways has worked with the Atlantic Council in developing a new report, which highlights the development of biofuels, to ensure those produced, certainly by aviation, meet the very highest sustainability standards. This report will be launched at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum, to be held in Abu Dhabi on January 12-13.

Our efforts in this area have taken time, as developing a solution to make real reductions in our carbon footprint needs to be developed with care, to ensure our fragile ecosystem, with little freshwater and non-arable land is not compromised. With this new Seas model, we have turned these constraints to our advantage to ensure we can provide local and sustainable solutions to a global challenge.

Linden Coppell is Head of Sustainability Etihad Aviation Group.