‘Guilt-free’ transatlantic flight is on the horizon, government says | climate news
Flying guilt-free is one step closer to reality, the government said, as it fined Virgin Airlines up to $1m.
A regular Boeing 787 passenger plane will fly from London to New York next year to prove that long-haul flights can only be fueled with Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).
Environmentalists question SAF’s environmental credentials, arguing that the only guaranteed way to reduce the impact of flying is to simply do it less.
But the government says this test flight will show “guilt-free flying” is on the horizon as it plans to increase passenger numbers.
“This will be the longest that sustainable aviation fuel has been flown and it will be… absolutely crucial in showing other airlines and the rest of the world what can be done,” Air Minister Baroness Vere told Sky News.
Current regulations only allow the use of a maximum of 50% SAF mixed with regular jet fuel, kerosene, in commercial aircraft engines.
Virgin will lead a consortium that includes Rolls-Royce, Boeing and Imperial College London.
They say the plane will surely make it safely across the Atlantic because they have conducted test flights, but have not been able to disclose the distances.
“The beauty of sustainable jet fuel is that it’s just a drop of fuel, which actually means it smells and looks just like jet fuel,” said Shai Weiss, Virgin CEO.
Speaking at Heathrow Terminal 3, Baroness Vere said the flight was “absolutely” good for the environment as it will bring the UK closer to net-zero aviation, one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonize.
How sustainable is sustainable aviation fuel?
The government expects this test flight to be “primarily” fueled with waste oils and greases.
This would reduce emissions by 70% compared to kerosene as it is a waste product that does not need to be extracted.
The remaining 30% is counteracted by carbon offsetting, although this can be difficult to achieve.
But the government’s own climate advisors, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), have warned against over-reliance on SAF.
The CCC’s Net Zero leader, David Joffe, said: “It’s easy to get carried away in the same way People get carried away by it [nuclear] merger announcement… and say, ‘Oh, it’s about to break through, so we don’t have to do anything [to reduce demand]'”.
“But our analysis suggests that even by 2050, there just won’t be enough SAF to get it all done.”
Baroness Vere said: “I am confident that sustainable aviation fuels are sustainable, but … we have to look very carefully [at] the raw materials.”
She added: “Therefore we need to invest now to move forward with research and development [research and development] that will make these paths happen.”
“Really worrying” that the government will not cut demand
The government relies on SAF to offset the planned 70% passenger boom. The expansion goes against the CCC’s warnings that an increase of no more than 25% is possible while meeting climate targets.
The minister shot down calls for a levy on frequent flyers that would allow everyone to take one or two trips a year and then gradually tax each flight.
“This government is against aviation emissions, not air travel,” she said. “We can continue to fly because it’s good for our economy, it’s good for our friendships and it’s good to see our family.”
Alethea Warrington of the climate organization Possible called it “really worrying that the government is refusing to take action to limit flight demand”.
There will be “a huge increase in emissions that most people in the UK will not benefit from,” she added.
In the UK, 15% of the population operates 70% of flights, with 52% not flying internationally at all.
What is sustainable aviation fuel?
Sustainable aviation fuel can be made from waste products such as cooking oil or black garbage. This means lifecycle emissions are 70% lower because they don’t have to be extracted from the ground like regular jet fuel.
But the emissions when burned in a jet engine are the same, and there are concerns that there isn’t an endless supply of waste.
SAF can also be made from plants. This form also causes the same emissions as kerosene when burned, but these can theoretically be absorbed again by the new plants as they grow.
This form of SAF is particularly controversial because of concerns that monocultures are bad for life-supporting ecosystems and because they would require a lot of land. It is also difficult to guarantee that the new plants will absorb the corresponding emissions.
A third form is to produce hydrogen from renewable energy and combine it with carbon dioxide from the air, but it’s very energy intensive.
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