Airlines criticized for opting for alternative fuels

Airlines criticized for opting for alternative fuels

One of the ways the sector seeks to replace conventional fossil jet fuel is by exploring the use of sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.

Justin Tallis | Afp | Getty pictures

FARNBOROUGH, England – Airline executives at the British Farnborough International Airshow are focusing on using so-called sustainable aviation fuel to reduce their climate impact, saying the technology is already available and can eventually be scaled up to help the industry reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Campaigners urge them to “get real” but reject the plans as “completely unrealistic” on current growth paths. Instead, demand management measures are seen as the most effective way for the aviation industry to reduce its climate impact in the short term.

It comes as leaders in the aerospace and defense industries gather in extreme heat at the Farnborough International Airshow, Britain’s first major air show since the start of the Covid pandemic.

The five-day trade fair, which started on Monday, has seen thousands of participants gather in the south of England to discuss the future of aviation.

Compared to other sectors, aviation is a relatively small contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is recognized as one of the fastest growing – and the number of flights is expected to grow at an alarming rate over the coming decades.

If aviation is to conform to the landmark Paris climate agreement and curb global warming, industry will have to move away from fossil fuels in the long run.

One of the ways the sector seeks to replace conventional fossil jet fuel is by exploring the use of sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.

Chris Raymond, Boeing’s head of sustainability, believes SAF will be a “necessary component” in helping the industry reach net zero emissions by the middle of the century. “It’s not a bridge,” Raymond told a news conference Monday. “SAF is required. It’s SAF and what else we can do.”

Reflecting on Boeing’s prospects for SAF until 2050, Raymond said: “These roads to make these fuels will be better and cleaner as there is more renewable electricity. [and] as the hydrogen source becomes more renewable because we do it more often with electrolysis and renewable energy networks. “

“This is a spectrum that is driving great innovation right now – and everything is SAF,” said Raymond. Think of it as SAF’s early days all the way to the hypothetical pure cult [power-to-liquid) SAF, made with nothing but green hydrogen from renewable electricity and direct air carbon capture.”

Not all alternative fuels are created equal

Sustainable aviation fuels, or SAF, are energy sources “made from renewable raw material,” according to aircraft maker Airbus. It says the most common feedstocks “are crops based or used cooking oil and animal fat.”

There are major concerns in some quarters that increased uptake of SAF could, among other things, result in substantial deforestation and create a squeeze on crops crucial to food production.

“The main thing to bear in mind that is not all SAF are created equal, and their sustainability fully depends on the sustainably of the feedstock that they are made from. With SAF, the devil is really in [the details]”Matteo Mirolo, Aviation Policy Officer at Transport & Environment, told CNBC by phone.

“The first thing we look for, and I think especially of airlines, is a recognition that the credibility of their SAF plans depends on making the right choices when it comes to the type of SAF or raw material from which they are made,” said Mirolo.

Earlier this month, European lawmakers voted narrowly to prevent the use of controversial biofuel raw materials from the EU’s green mandate for aviation fuel, known as ReFuelEU. The decision was welcomed as a positive step towards decarbonising the sector and improving the credibility of the bloc’s climate plans.

“My view on this is that we should go as fast as we can to introduce sustainable aviation fuel now, to increase this industry now. This is really a very good opportunity to reduce carbon emissions at the beginning of the 30-year tranche we are talking about. , “said Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury on Monday at a panel at the Farnborough International Airshow.

Faury said that the first turning point for sustainable aviation fuels is likely to depend mainly on bio-based aviation fuels, but that they will eventually be replaced by “more sophisticated” power-to-liquid fuels, or e-fuels.

“Probably in the long run – for decades – we will find a very optimized way for sustainable energy, but in the transition is the fast way to use SAF, and they are available now,” said Faury.

Large increase in emissions “just not viable”

Norman Baker, campaign and policy advisor at Campaign for Better Transport, was clear in his message to airline executives who are betting on SAF to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

“They need to be real,” Baker told CNBC by telephone. “I do not think SAF is sustainable. It is a term used by the industry just like when tobacco companies talked about low tar cigarettes.”

One of the core problems of relying on SAF to reduce the climate impact of aviation in the long term, campaigners say, is that it allows the industry to continue to grow at a rate incompatible with the ever-deepening climate crisis.

“Even if alternative fuels develop as planned, and even if prices fall and availability increases, the idea that they will be available to allow the industry to continue its current growth path is completely unrealistic,” said Alethea Warrington, a shareholder. by Climate Charity Possible, told CNBC by telephone.

“It’s just not viable to have a huge increase in emissions now and hope you can magically fix this in a couple of decades,” Warrington said. “It’s just not going to work.”

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