Airliners powered by sustainable fuel remain a distant goal


This article is part of a special report on Climate Solutions, which looks at efforts around the world to make a difference.


LONDON — One day at the end of 2023, a near-empty commercial airliner is set to take off on a transatlantic flight between Britain and the United States that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is touting as a once-in-a-generation breakthrough for Europe. Aviation and Climate Currency.

With characteristic dynamism, Mr Johnson compared the event to the brave first non-stop flight across the Atlantic by a Vickers biplane in 1919, when British First World War veterans Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown battled from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Galway, Ireland. .

Mr Johnson’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said next year’s flight would be nothing short of the dawn of an ‘era of guilt-free flying’ for passengers worried about the Aviation industry has so far contributed little to the race to achieve something like a “Net-Zero” World.

Why all this excitement? And is it justified?

The flight will be powered only by sustainable aviation fuel or SAF, jet fuel made from greener processes and raw materials ranging from cooking oil, solid waste and crop residues to synthetic kerosene made from hydrogen and recycled carbon.

Pollution will still spit from the jet’s engines, but the fuel is considered “sustainable” because much of the carbon it emits – often up to 80% of the carbon emitted by normal fuel – has already been absorbed from the engine. atmosphere by the feedstock or would have been released anyway if it hadn’t been made into jet fuel.

The UK government calls it “net zero” theft, although there will likely still be a need for purchases of carbon offset credits for the numbers to add up.

And for the flight to signal a real change in the impact of air travel on the environment, the production of sustainable aviation fuels would have to reach extremely ambitious and far-reaching levels, goals requiring huge investment in production and infrastructure. by fuel manufacturers.

For this and other reasons, some critics dismiss the theft as a headline-grabbing gimmick.

“To say that we can fly guilt-free anytime soon is a misleading and dangerous message to convey to the public,” said Tim Johnson, director of the British campaign group Aviation Environment Federation, who sits on the government’s “jet zero”. advisory board.

In addition to unrealistic projections of fuel availability, both government and industry plan to continue to increase passenger numbers and miles flown without taxing aviation fuels or making other difficult policy and technological changes to reduce emissions, he said.

Dan Rutherford, program director of a Washington-based research organization, the International Council on Clean Transportation, noted that the flight is not as revolutionary as expected: United Airlines has already flown a plane from Houston to Washington , DC, using 100 percent sustainable fuel in an engine; Airbus did the same in France; and the main hurdle for the transatlantic venture will be securing a one-time exemption from fuel regulations that limit the total amount of sustainable fuel an aircraft can use to a 50% blend with normal jet fuel.

Indeed, when the UK government announced in May that it would hold a competition between airlines and other industry players to take part in the flight, it admitted that one of the aims was to “provide a new about the transition to SAF to increase consumer confidence in the safety and environmental benefits of SAF.

Much like transatlantic flight, the aviation industry’s broader promise of achieving net zero emissions by 2050 relies heavily on sustainable fuel, despite significant shortages and few government initiatives to help it compete with the much cheaper traditional fuel, kerosene.

“I’m baffled by the lack of attention governments here and around the world are giving to the fact that we simply don’t have the capacity to manufacture all the SAFs that everyone is counting on,” said a senior official at the British fuel industry which did not wish to be named in order to protect its relationship with the government.

A spokesperson for a transport association said last week that the group expected 125 million liters of sustainable fuel to be produced this year, up from 100 million liters last year, but still well on the way. below 1% of total consumption.

In October 2021, the association projected that its 2050 target would require the production of 7.9 billion liters of sustainable fuel by 2025, increasing to 23 billion liters in 2030 and 449 billion liters in 2050.

The spokesman acknowledged last week that 2025 production was now likely to be short, reaching five billion litres, but insisted the transport association still believed the 2050 target of more 3,700 times this year’s production remained achievable “with appropriate government policy support”.

Even the reduced estimate of five billion liters for 2025 still requires a 40-fold increase in production in just three years, and with each new refinery taking three to 10 years to come online, there are few signs of the necessary increase in investment, especially from the giant oil companies.

When Prime Minister Johnson was asked by reporters about his decision to take a private jet from London to Cornwall rather than a four-hour train journey to attend a climate summit in June last year, he defended himself by claiming to rule the world. on sustainable fuel.

“If you’re attacking my flying in,” he said, “I respectfully point out that the UK is actually leading the way in developing sustainable aviation fuel. One of the points in the 10-point plan of our green industrial revolution is to achieve jet zero as well as net zero.

Mr Rutherford of the International Council for Clean Transport called it “the most bizarre statement I’ve heard on this whole issue”.

“It was completely wrong and it was amazing that he managed to say that,” he said. “The UK produces almost no commercial SAF. The US has a large operational factory at Paramount outside Los Angeles, and there is production in Europe, but the UK is lagging behind.

A small amount of sustainable fuel has been delivered to an airline, British Airways, from a factory, the Phillips 66 Humber refinery in the north of England, since an initial shipment in March this year.

Texas-based Phillips 66 says its Humber plant can produce around 25 million liters a year, with plans to increase that to more than 66 million liters by 2025.

The UK government has provided £15 million ($18.4 million) in funding for eight planned sustainable aviation fuel projects, and aviation minister Robert Courts said it is “currently stepping up our efforts to help companies innovate on pioneering SAFs, supporting UK industry with £180 million in funding over the next three years.

Real progress remains slow. One of the companies that has won part of the UK government’s funding for sustainable aviation fuel, Velocities, announced in 2019 that it would start production in five years at the Immingham refinery, near the Humber Estuary.

Today, construction at the site has yet to begin, and the company continues to say it is five years away from commercial production.

A new UK policy announced during the Farnborough AirshowJuly 18-22 is expected to include mandates for UK airlines to use a minimum amount of sustainable aviation fuel, which aims to boost demand for a product that is still around three times more expensive than jet fuel.

The European Union is drawing up similar mandates, but Mark Corbett, the founder of Thrust Carbon, which develops software to help customers monitor their emissions, said the missing factor remained “a serious investment by the industry and a sense of urgency and leadership by governments around the world.

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