Is sustainable aviation fuel the future of more planet-friendly flying?

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Are sustainable aviation fuels the future of more planet-friendly flight – or is being pushed by the airline lobby an oxymoron? Searching for Lucy Tobin…

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The centerpiece of T “Jet Zero” – the government slapped on its plan to decarbonize aviation – is the claim that a commercial passenger jet will cross the Atlantic without emitting any carbon by 2025.

Critics say such a transatlantic voyage would not be viable (or economical) on a large scale – and the focus on so-called sustainable fuels ignores the need for major reductions in flights in general and a hefty tax on jet fuel. Is.

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But the government is backing “sustainable aviation fuel” – even using it via private jet to justify climate change-battling Boris Johnson’s homecoming at COP26, saying it stating that it was powered by “the most sustainable aviation fuel possible”.

So is SAF (which has to be mixed with fossil fuels to ensure existing aircraft can use it) the future of more planet-friendly flight – or an oxymoron being pushed by the airline lobby?

British Airways is betting on the former. Its owner, IAG, last week struck a deal to buy 73 million gallons of carbon-negative jet fuel from London-listed tech start-up Veloci.

The firm makes its SAF (a catch-all-term for lower-carbon-burning fuel) by mixing waste wood biomass with conventional kerosene to create a cleaner-burning fuel. Carbon capture and storage technology means that the manufacturing process can be rated as net carbon negative.

IAG – which has gone ahead of most rivals with its eco intentions, committed to powering 10% of its flights with SAF by 2030 – recognizes that “aviation may be one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise”. Is.”

But curiously, the airline group’s head of sustainability, Jonathan Counsell, said there was no need to close our airports. “The problem isn’t flying, it’s carbon and we’re working on the transition. Aviation is responsible for about 2.4% of all man-made CO2 and we’re taking action to tackle the industry’s carbon footprint.”

Or, as one transportation analyst puts it, “the IAGs are fighting to own the agenda; When you are seen as a polluter, it is the best way to avoid taxes.”

But SAF has two major problems: how it is made, and how much it costs.

Sustainable fuels can reduce carbon emissions by up to 70% according to aviation industry body IATA – which has put a renewed emphasis on SAF since former IAG CEO Willie Walsh took over the cockpit.

But currently SAFs account for just 0.01% of total fuel consumption in Europe. That demand can be met from sources such as used cooking fat. Critics argue that any substantial increase in supply would require swapping of land used for feedstock production or contributing to deforestation.

, HSBC aviation analyst Andrew Lobenberg says it’s a misnomer. “The future of SAF will not exist from existing feedstock. More may be available from existing sources as ground transport, which can electrify far more simply than aviation, requires less biodiesel, therefore uses more Going cooking oil from, say, McDonald’s could be converted into aviation fuel – but that would only help the margins. SAF needs to grow from a whole set of new feedstocks, particularly for households, forestry and agriculture. from the waste generated.

“Today the cost of SAF is incredibly high, but it should get cheaper as production industrialises. It is still probably the dominant tool in decarbonizing aviation.”

Currently SAFs are five times more expensive than fossil fuels. Industrialization of production will reduce costs but may require tax incentives (such as in the US) and/or mandates (the European Commission has proposed a 5% SAF blending mandate in the bloc by 2030) – but in any case The price of kerosene itself will still not match. “But it doesn’t have to be that,” explains Lobenberg.

He adds: “It has to match the cost of kerosene and the cost of carbon. I think we will see policy moves that are a carrot and stick mix to bridge the gap between SAF and kerosene plus carbon.

At IAG, the council is even more optimistic, predicting that SAF prices will fall below fossil prices in areas where renewable energy is abundant and affordable.

The demand is certainly set to increase. The Air Transport Action Group believes that the aviation industry will need 445 million tonnes of SAF to meet its net zero target in 2050. Based on the IAG’s target of 10% SAF in its flights by 2030, this would require “about 1 million”. Ton saf,” confirms the counsel.

For now, SAF is a green(er) sticking plaster. It can be mixed into existing fuel supply infrastructure, and used in existing jet aircraft to make an environmentally dirty mode of transport more palatable. Long haul-ready electric or hydrogen-powered jets probably won’t be ready until 2040 at the earliest – SAFs could be far faster on-tap.

“Aviation, unlike other industries, does not have an immediate alternative to fossil fuels,” admits Counsel. “SAF is the solution that is available today and with the right policy support to encourage investment we expect more plants to be built in the future to provide adequate supply for the industry. Over the next 10 years across the UK 14 plants can be built, which will create 6,500 jobs and save 3.6 million tonnes of CO per annum.”

No wonder shares of IAG’s Cambridge-based SAF supplier, Velocys, have nearly doubled in the past year.

Yet, like most environmental issues, promoting aviation is a global issue. “If a country or bloc like the European Union takes a stand, it could harm its aviation and tourism industries and economies in comparison to the rest of the world, when climate change is a global problem,” says Lobenberg.

The International Civil Aviation Organization of the United Nations hosts its next major meeting in October 2022: SAF-viewers are keen to see how the debate progresses.

Any world leader flying on SAF-fueled private jets would be hoping for good global news.

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