Don’t believe the hype – sustainable aviation fuels won’t lead to zero-carbon flights


NShe sounded impressed that “the inaugural meeting of the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition,” held at Cop26 this year, has drawn some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential nations, including including the UK, USA and France. The never-before-seen meeting between 23 countries took place at the climate conference in Glasgow earlier this month – but what has really been achieved when it comes to air travel?

ONE declaration has been made by the signatories, one of which includes several commitments to “acknowledge”, “recognize” and “recall” that aviation emissions have a sizable impact on global warming.

In fact, the language seems to suggest more about “recognizing” the problematic nature of increasing CO2 production from air travel than actually doing anything to reduce it. . But among the very tedious promises are a few more practical suggestions. The Alliance agrees to “promote the development and deployment, through international and national measures, of sustainable aviation fuels that reduce lifecycle emissions and contribute to the achievement of the Development Goals.” United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular avoiding competition with food production using land and water supply. ”

This language seems to suggest more about ‘realizing’ the problematic nature of increasing CO2 production from air travel, than actually doing anything to reduce it.

This may not be the first time you hear the phrase “sustainable aviation fuels”, or SAF – because 2021 is the year that aviation industry and governments seem to have collectively decided that this would be the saving grace of a practice that is increasingly under the microscope for its damaging climate impact.

In September of this year, British Airways operates first flight using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The airline said the flight from London Heathrow to Glasgow demonstrated how “aviation is decarbonising”.

Earlier in 2021, its parent company, International Airlines Group (IAG), became the first European airline group to commit to powering 10% of flight with sustainable aviation fuels by 2030.

The group said it will purchase one million tonnes of sustainable jet fuel a year, “allowing them to cut annual emissions by 2 million tonnes by 2030. This is equivalent to removing 1 million cars from the European roads every year.”

At Dubai Expo 2020, held this month, the UK’s Transport Minister Grant Shapps names SAFs as key short-term solution to decarbonizing air travel. “Long-term goals need to be balanced with short-term goals such as expanding the deployment of sustainable aviation fuels,” he said.

And across the pond, Airlines for America (A4A), the industry trade organization representing America’s top airlines, announced in March that its member airlines had committed to working with government leaders and other stakeholders to “make 3 billion gallons of cost competitively sustainable aviation fuel available to U.S. aircraft operators by 2030.”

So what’s the problem? Surely sustainability equates to good? Ah, it’s too simple. Let’s take a look at the problems plaguing this controversial branch of the emissions-cutting plan…

SAFs must be mixed with kerosene

When you see an airline claiming a flight is SAF powered, there’s an immediate message – it doesn’t work just SAFE. In practice, SAF will only account for a small fraction of the fuel used. It’s always been mixed with regular old fossil fuels – in fact, it has to be. The highest amount that can currently be mixed is 50% SAF and usually less than that. That historic BA flight I mentioned earlier? It is powered by SAF that blends 35% with traditional jet fuel, which means 65% is still kerosene.

What is the least amount of in-flight emissions SAF causes?

I have to admit that the branding of this fuel is incredibly clever. The seductive words “sustainable aviation fuels” suggest that they produce less emissions than conventional jet fuel while the plane is in the air; this is simply not the case. Airlines claim that SAFs can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 80% compared to fossil fuels, but they emit at least as much CO2 as kerosene in flight, as well as harmful non-CO2 emissions. similarly, also has a significant warming effect. .

In fact, most SAF is jet fuel produced from “sustainable” raw materials, such as waste cooking oil and other non-palm waste oils from animals or plants; solid waste from households and businesses, such as packaging, paper, textiles and food waste that would otherwise be landfilled or incinerated; forestry waste, such as wood waste; and energy plants, including fast-growing plants and algae. So any claimed greenhouse gas savings are built into the fuel’s “lifecycle” – how it is produced – and not in flight; for example, by growing a crop that absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, which is then converted into fuel. With the right balance – if the same amount of carbon is removed from the atmosphere during fuel generation as is subsequently released when it burns at high altitude – this could lead to zero flights. carbon.

The alluring words ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ suggest they produce less emissions than conventional jet fuel while the plane is in the air; this is simply not the case

But often this “lifecycle” approach to fuel emissions is not based on removing carbon, but on making assumptions about what will happen, such as waste used to generate SAF if it is not turned into fuel. “Since waste has a high proportion of ‘biological’ materials in it which can produce methane – a potent greenhouse gas – if left to rot, a large benefit is assumed to arise if the waste is converted to aviation fuel, although this still generates According to the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF). “The claimed ‘net’ reduction is therefore more related to avoided emissions than to any actual reduction. But to reach net zero by 2050 across the economy, it is necessary to avoid this methane emissions as well as net zero aviation emissions, not instead.”

Currently, SAF cannot be scaled up to the required extent

This is one of the biggest obstacles that airlines and governments are currently failing to address. With the best will in the world, scalability is a big deal – because SAFs currently take more money and resources to generate than fossil fuels do. And the ways in which you can rapidly scale up – by merging large swaths of land to grow single, fast-growing plants, for example – is a nightmare for biodiversity and raising a red flag at a time when we need to use the land to feed a growing population.

Based on analysis by consulting firm McKinsey, to ensure no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels (as defined by the Paris Agreement), SAFs would have to make up 20% of all jet fuel by 2030 – or a minimum of 10 %,” in a scenario where transportation lags behind in decarbonisation compared to other sectors”.

The highest amount that can currently be mixed is 50% SAF and it is usually less


And not one yet Year 2021 paper from the International Council on Clean Transport (ICCT), which has estimated the availability of SAF feedstock to meet the growing demand of the European Union, concluding that “without taking into account political barriers or economics for SAF production, we estimate that there are sufficient resources to support approximately 3.4 million tons of advanced SAF production annually, or 5.5% of projected jet fuel needs of the EU by 2030. Estimated production potential taking into account material availability, sustainable harvesting limits, other existing uses of those materials, and SAF conversion yields. ”

As a result, it remains unclear how the multitude of airlines expected to be able to achieve their lowest 10% SAF target that same year.

Final result? The SAF has an important part to play in reducing aviation emissions – but a relatively small part, rather than the major role they are currently assigned by industry and politicians alike. Don’t believe the hype – sustainable aviation fuels won’t lead to zero-carbon flights


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