De-carbonizing aviation takes off as Salesforce and Deloitte get on board with airlines

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett January 26, 2024
Summary:
Tech innovation will see hydrogen-powered planes and CO2 used as feedstock

flying

Airline travel is a significant and growing contributor to climate change. Aviation emissions more than doubled between 1990 and 2019, and the airline industry accounts for five percent of all global emissions – that’s equivalent to 1.75 billion tonnes of CO2 per year.

In a bid to tackle emissions in the aviation sector with new technologies, Salesforce and Deloitte recently launched the UpLink-FMC Sustainable Aviation Challenge. Along with partner companies including Airbus, JetBlue Ventures and Qantas Airways, they have now announced 16 winning start-ups. 

The challenge invited ecopreneurs to share their ideas for de-carbonizing the airline industry, with an aim of helping them scale their technology for commercial use and get it to market. The winners, who were chosen from 129 applicants, are developing innovative approaches to sustainable aviation fuel, battery-powered and hydrogen-powered flight. 

The Aviation Challenge is one of several run by the First Movers Coalition (FMC). FMC is a global partnership from the World Economic Forum and US Government, aimed at de-carbonizing the world’s heavy-emitting sectors: aviation, carbon dioxide removal, aluminium, cement and concrete, shipping, steel and trucking. 

When FMC launched two years ago, the objective was to boost development of low-carbon goods and services, which are not yet available on the market at low cost and in high volume, such as sustainable aviation fuel, green steel or low carbon cement. Jamila Yamani, Director, Climate Innovation and Energy Transition at Salesforce, explains:

Today, these things are very expensive and they haven't reached price parity with their conventional counterparts. The intention of FMC was for member companies to send a demand signal for these low-carbon goods so that we could spur the market and accelerate the innovation life cycles for all these different technologies.

The focus of the group over the past two years, and of this particular UpLink aviation challenge, has been on discovering the innovators and technologies in this sector. Yamani adds:

In practice, it is very hard to sign off purchase commitments for things that aren't yet commercial. We need to bring them to the surface. We need to help them get established so that companies like Salesforce can write those purchase commitments and offtake agreements.

Commitments

Commitments made by FMC members to purchase near-zero emission goods and services using these breakthrough climate technologies by 2030 represent an estimated annual demand of $16 billion, and a reduction in annual emissions by 31 million tonnes (Mt) CO2e.

When it came to deciding on the winners of the aviation challenge, Yamani says the organization has focused on where UpLink – the World Economic Forum’s open innovation platform - and FMC could best support innovators. The sweet spot was companies that weren't so mature they already had Series D and E financing, and that covered as diverse a technology set as possible. She adds:

The intention was never to choose a technology winner, that it was going to be all SaaS or all power to liquids.

The winners include Cemvita, which is using a biotechnology pathway to develop hydrogen as a precursor to a number of different fuels. Yamani says:

What's exciting about companies like Cemvita, and there are others in our cohort as well, is they have implications for aviation and de-carbonizing fuels for aviation, but also there are cascading impacts in a number of different industries because that core technology can help de-carbonize other hard-to-abate sectors, whether it's shipping or whether it's steel. 

That's largely true for many of the companies in our cohort. We were really keen to pick at least one or two biotechnology pathways because we wanted to reflect that this is also one of the promising but very early stage types of innovations that we're seeing today.” 

Another winner, Azzera, has a software platform focused on de-carbonizing the industry at large, including innovation on contrail management. Contrails, the white lines that come out of an airplane, have a significant climate impact. 

Air Company and Twelve, meanwhile, are focused on e-fuels and creating new fuels using CO2 as a precursor. Yamani explains:

We've seen a lot of technologies from direct air capture, from carbon capture that are pulling CO2 out of the air or point source. Companies like Air Company and Twelve are creating pathways for us to use CO2 as a feedstock, which really talks about closing that loop and eventually developing net negative fuels.

When it came to choosing aviation for a challenge, Yamani noted that of the two FMC sectors Salesforce was part of - carbon dioxide removal and aviation – the latter had enough commercialized and early stage technology to make it viable for further innovation. She says:

We'd already established a baseline in the market. Folks were already starting to buy sustainable aviation fuel, people were investing in power to liquids companies. That had already been seeded, so it felt like if we're going to kickstart this new perspective in FMC and this new approach at Salesforce, let's start with something that already has a little bit of momentum so that we can accelerate it a little bit further.

Coming up 

Since launching in 2021, FMC now has 96 members. Recent additions include Qatar Airways, The Coca Cola Company and Volvo Cars.

Following the aviation challenge, next up is the near-zero steel 2030 challenge. The aim is to surface the supply of and demand for near-zero emissions steel, as well as enabling technologies that could be leveraged to support supply. By early January, there were already 67 submissions. 

The high number of submissions for these competitions indicates the level of innovation and interest in developing climate tech, which is a good thing, as the FMC notes: 

Half of the emissions reductions needed by 2050 must come from technologies not yet available at scale.

While these technologies are still to emerge, Yamani sees reason to be optimistic around their development and success in tackling the climate crisis. She explains:

For one, I work at a company like Salesforce, which just goes to show that tech companies outside of these hard-to-abate sectors are thinking about the implications not just for themselves, but for the planet. Not to mention things like this aviation challenge, First Movers Coalition, the green steel challenge, and so many other efforts that are highly focused on identifying those technologies that can help de-carbonize us globally.

There’s also an economic incentive to back climate tech. Yamani says she would be remiss not to add that Salesforce is a business, and is not just helping to identify new no-cost technologies. The aim is very much to create new markets and new businesses:

Sustainable aviation is going to be a business of its own. The technologies are going to demonstrate that not only have they reached price parity and equivalent performance to their conventional counterparts, but also superior performance, better energy density, cleaner burning, easier to transport, a number of different things.  I work in this space, so I will always be optimistic, but I think we can do it. 

My take

A worthy initiative that's worth keeping a close eye on in 2024 and beyond. 

Loading
A grey colored placeholder image