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The latest aviation innovation is under way. The first transatlantic passenger flight using only sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, took off from London Heathrow airport, destination New York, shortly before 12 noon on Tuesday 28 November.
The aircraft named “Lucy in the Sky”, a Boeing 787, had to undergo special certification processes from aviation authorities in the UK, Ireland, Canada, and the US, as those are the countries it will be flying over. The flight did not have any paying passengers, but instead had around 100 invited guests for the 3,500-mile journey.
Before leaving, Shai Weiss, the CEO of Virgin Atlantic, stated to The Independent: “This serves as evidence of what is achievable and what is necessary.”
Environmentalists challenge certain claims about SAF and argue that the most effective way to address aviation’s impact on the environment is to decrease air travel. Here are the main inquiries and responses.
What is the main concept?
The aviation sector claims that utilizing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) can potentially decrease emissions by 70%, and the purpose of this flight is to demonstrate that with sufficient production of SAF, there would be no necessity for traditional fossil fuel-based alternatives.
This particular transatlantic flight was unique in that it did not use any fossil fuels. Instead, it primarily relied on a combination of repurposed vegetable oil, animal fat, and household waste.
The primary source of fuel for the two Rolls-Royce engines is HEFA (hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids), which is derived from processed waste fats. However, to ensure proper functioning, 12 percent of plant-based synthetic aromatic kerosene (SAK) is also added to the mix.
So zero emissions?
Not at all. The quantity of fuel consumed (approximately 45 tons) and carbon dioxide produced during the seven-hour duration of Virgin Atlantic Flight 100 is equivalent to that of regular Jet A1 kerosene usage.
The disparity lies in the total greenhouse gas emissions produced throughout the duration of the fuel’s lifespan. For instance, by transforming household waste into SAF, there will be a decrease in the production of methane from landfills.
An additional instance is related to using plant-based fuel. As the plants are in the process of growing, they take in CO2 from the air. However, once they are burned in an aircraft engine, the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere.
According to the aviation sector, this is a strong demonstration of progress towards achieving net zero. However, they are in dire need of increased accessibility to cost-effective SAF.
According to Rania Georgoutsakou, who serves as the managing director of Airlines for Europe, the recent transatlantic flight marks a significant step towards the future of air travel. However, in order for this to become a regular occurrence rather than a one-time event, immediate action must be taken.
There is a significant interest among European airlines for sustainable aviation fuels, along with the implementation of ambitious mandates for their use under the new EU regulations. However, we are currently starting from a relatively small starting point.
“Yet, by offering appropriate governmental incentives and assistance, we have the potential to greatly increase fuel production in Europe. Our goal is to establish 30 sustainable fuel factories throughout the continent by 2030, revolutionizing our industry.”
Does everyone agree?
Not at all. According to Anna Hughes, the director of Flight Free UK, this is based on the accuracy of the emissions-savings claims made by SAF. When the fuel is burned, there is no variation in emissions; any perceived “savings” are actually from the product’s overall life-cycle.
“However, the process of converting these into fuel suitable for aircrafts requires a significant amount of energy. Ultimately, it may be more efficient to simply utilize kerosene.”
According to activists, producing crops solely for fuel can harm biodiversity and contribute to deforestation, making it more detrimental than using traditional fossil fuels.
According to the Royal Society, replacing aviation fuel with energy crops such as rapeseed, miscanthus, and poplar wood would use up over 50% of the UK’s agricultural land.
The UK government is enthusiastic about promoting the conversion of waste into SAF. They state, “Transforming waste materials into jet fuel to reduce emissions is the most immediate solution to help decrease carbon emissions in our skies.”
However, according to the Royal Society, utilizing “waste” materials such as sewage, solid municipal waste, or forestry residues could potentially help achieve net zero fuel demand. This is due to potential competition from existing markets for these materials and the need for substantial investment in fuel production and collection infrastructure.
According to T&E (Transport and Environment), a prominent European NGO advocating for cleaner transportation, the use of non-edible animal fat can result in the death of 8,800 pigs for a flight from Paris to New York.
Is it advisable to reduce our air travel?
Anna Hughes, founder of Flight Free UK, shares this belief. She expresses concern that some travelers may be misled into thinking there is an easy and painless fix for the environmental effects of air travel.
This marks a significant moment for both the industry and the government, giving them the illusion that we can maintain our high levels of air travel without any negative impact on the environment.
The truth is that we have yet to find a way to effectively decrease the negative impact of flying on the environment, so for now, the solution is to simply fly less frequently.
“Although the idea of powering a flight with 100% SAF may seem promising, it will still take many years before these ‘sustainable’ fuels can be commonly used. In order to significantly reduce flight emissions, the truth is that we must decrease the amount of flights, something that the industry may not want to accept.”
Helen Coffey, the travel editor at The Independent, concurs: “The marketing of this particular fuel has been, I must admit, incredibly cunning. The enticing phrase ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ implies that they emit fewer pollutants than traditional jet fuel when the plane is in flight; however, this is not the reality.”
However, according to Shai Weiss, the CEO of Virgin Atlantic, air travel is crucial for island nations as it allows for business, scientific research, and visiting loved ones.
“I believe it is extremely naive to think that we can simply eliminate the act of flying through magic.”
At the beginning of this year, the UK government reduced Air Passenger Duty by half, making domestic air travel more appealing.
When can we expect passengers to regularly travel in planes powered by SAF?
Currently, they are utilizing a small portion of SAF in addition to regular fuel. This brings attention to the main issue: SAF is scarce globally and therefore, very expensive.
The aviation sector is calling for government assistance to support the growing industry and achieve the goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions in aviation by 2050.
What alternatives are available?
Reworded: Battery or hydrogen-powered electric aviation produces no emissions. However, according to the Transport Select Committee, electric batteries are not expected to become compact or lightweight enough to be viable for longer flights.
“Storage of hydrogen may require significant space and it is highly combustible.”