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Is sustainable fuel as green as the aviation industry claims?

This week marked what the aviation industry saw as a triumphant first with the successful flight of a Virgin Atlantic aircraft powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) across the Atlantic. Upon landing in the US, Sir Richard Branson said the achievement will hopefully mean “the start of a future where people will be able to fly on planes that are not emitting carbon”.

Meanwhile, the UK government, who gave the airline £1m in funding to help make the project happen, said the successful flight demonstrated that the decarbonisation of air travel can be done. But sceptics suggest that Virgin’s ‘Flight100’ was not as sustainable as the aviation community claims it was – and that, perhaps, it was a ‘one-off’ that by no means suggests this can be rolled-out for all commercial air travel.

Indeed, some question whether sustainable aviation fuel itself is as green as the industry claims. Ivan Stevenson, associate professor and curriculum lead for aviation management at Coventry University, argues no, it isn’t.

“It’s very disingenuous to pretend that sustainable aviation fuel is the burning of fuel with no emissions. [SAF] is trying to mitigate, rather the solve the problem,” he says, adding that Virgin’s Flight100 project was “concept proofing” – a test to assess the feasibility of SAF-powered long-haul air travel.

“There’s a lot of sustainable aviation fuel in the industry at the moment, but it works on the basis of being mixed into ordinary fuel. The significance of Virgin’s flight earlier this week was that it was 100 per cent powered by sustainable fuel.

“To get to that point required working with the airline, but also the engine manufacturer. It was very much a collaborative piece of work because currently no engines are approved for being fuelled by 100 per cent SAF,” he continued.

“What happened this week was not a one-off, it wasn’t the end of the journey, and it’s very significant. But we shouldn’t think for a moment that it was an emission free or carbon free flight because that wasn’t the case.”

Stevenson explains that alternative solutions to traditional jet fuel are certainly viable for short-haul journeys, such as with electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft. Indeed, Dale Vince, owner of green energy company Ecotricity, recently launched Ecojet, an airline that aims to be the world’s first electric carrier. It hopes to be operational from next year flying to and from Edinburgh.

This week, the hopeful flag-carrier for green Britain signed an agreement with hydrogen-electric aircraft developer ZeroAvia for up to 70 zero-emission engines. Vince says the technology is here now and that “carbon free, guilt free flying is just around the corner”. But Stevenson points out that for long-haul air travel “we’re going to be burning [non-renewable] fuel for the next 15 to 20 years, maybe longer”.

Climate campaigners argue that whilst Flight100 sounds like a success on paper, there is a hidden environmental impact that goes into the SAF production process before it eventually reaches the aircraft.

Alethea Warrington, senior campaigner at the climate charity Possible, told ARGS: “We already know that planes can use different fuels – but the problem is that they can’t meet the aviation industry’s gigantic demand for kerosene.

“If airlines try to roll this out at scale, it would result in massive environmental harms from the huge scale of land, crops or energy that would be needed, while also being extremely expensive.”

According to Stevenson, the aviation industry doesn’t want to talk about econometric measures to dampen out demand for international travel. He says that “to do what needs to be done” there needs to be a coming together of econometric measures, alternative fuels and government policy that facilitates the scaling up of SAF to a level that allows the industry to fully decarbonise.

Sustainable Aviation is a coalition of UK airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers and air navigation service providers that says it is committed to cutting aviation’s environmental impact. To ensure the industry achieves a net zero future, it says “the right government policy and price support needs to be in place to see the scalability of affordable SAF to airlines, alongside the investment in and infrastructure for zero and low emission aviation technologies like hydrogen”.

To do this, it calls on the government to maximise short-term operational efficiencies by accelerating the UK airspace modernisation programme and deliver commercial SAF production at scale this decade by providing a price stability mechanism and access to sustainable feedstocks. The group also wants to see investment in zero-emission flight and for the government to address residual aviation emissions by accelerating the roll-out of carbon removals. This, the group says, will lay the foundations of a net zero carbon roadmap.

What remains to be seen is just how such a roadmap will look. Industry leaders seem clear where they stand with regard to the immediate action that needs to be taken by policymakers. And, certainly, the UK government is continually announcing new investment and support for zero carbon flying and the prospect of a leading SAF industry.

But will this be enough? Environmental campaigners don’t seem to think so. Many appear not to be satisfied with any development of more sustainable flying. As Stevenson suggests, critics of Flight100 don’t want people to fly at all.

Climate groups are, though, pushing for more radical policies such as the banning of private jet travel, levies on frequent flyer programmes and a harsher kerosene tax. But these demands are perhaps unrealistic.

What the aviation industry can say for now is that long-haul SAF-powered flying can be achieved. Conceivably, the next step is to introduce gradual targets for both the production and roll-out of sustainable aviation fuel. But if SAF isn’t as green as the industry claims, what is the solution to decarbonisation?