Airlines criticized for betting on alternative fuels

One of the ways the industry is looking to replace conventional fossil jet fuel is to explore the use of sustainable aviation fuels, or SAFs.

Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images

FARNBOROUGH, England – Airline executives at Britain’s Farnborough International Airshow are betting on using so-called sustainable aviation fuels to reduce their impact on the climate, saying the technology is already available and can eventually be extended to help industry achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Campaigners urge them to “get real”, however, dismissing 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 short-term climate impact.

It comes as aerospace and defense industry leaders gather in extreme heat at the Farnborough International Airshow, the UK’s first major airshow since the start of the Covid pandemic.

The five-day trade show, which kicked off on Monday, saw thousands of attendees gather in the south of England to discuss the future of aviation.

Compared to other sectors, aviation contributes relatively little to global greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is recognized as one of the most dynamic – and the number of thefts is expected to increase at an alarming rate over the next few decades.

If aviation is to align with the landmark Paris climate accord and curb global warming, the industry will have to move away from fossil fuels completely in the long term.

One of the ways the industry is looking to replace conventional fossil jet fuel is to explore the use of sustainable aviation fuels, or SAFs.

Chris Raymond, director of sustainability at Boeing, believes SAF will be a “necessary component” to help the industry achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century. “It’s not a bridge,” Raymond said during a Monday press briefing. “SAF is needed. It’s SAF and everything else we can do.”

Reflecting on Boeing’s outlook for SAF through 2050, Raymond said: “These pathways for making these fuels will become better and cleaner as there is more renewable electricity. [and] as the source of hydrogen becomes more renewable because we make it more often with electrolysis and renewable energy grids.”

“This is a spectrum that’s driving great innovation right now – and it’s all SAF,” Raymond said. “Think of it as the early days of SAF down to the pure hypothetical [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, head of aviation policy at Transport & Environment, told CNBC by telephone.

“The first thing we are looking for, and I am thinking of airlines in particular, is recognition that the credibility of their SAF plans depends on making the right choices with regard to the type of SAF or the type of raw material. who they’re made from,” Mirolo said.

European lawmakers narrowly voted earlier this month to ban the use of controversial biofuel feedstock from the EU’s green aviation fuel mandate, known as ReFuelEU. The decision was hailed 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 move as fast as we can to introduce sustainable aviation fuels now, to accelerate this industry now. This is a really, really good opportunity to reduce carbon emissions early in the 30-year slice we’re talking about,” Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said during a panel at the Farnborough International Airshow on Monday.

Faury said the initial pivot to sustainable aviation fuels would likely rely primarily on bio-based aviation fuels, but these would eventually be replaced by “more sophisticated” power-to-liquid fuels, or e-fuels.

“Probably in the long term – many decades from now – we’ll find a very optimized way to sustainable energy, but in the transition the fastest way is to use SAFs, and they’re available now,” Faury said.

A huge increase in emissions “just not sustainable”

Norman Baker, Campaign and Policy Advisor at Campaign for Better Transport, was unequivocal in his message to airline executives betting on SAF to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

“They have to get real,” Baker told CNBC over the phone. “I don’t believe SAFs are sustainable. It’s a term used by the industry, just like when tobacco companies were talking about low tar cigarettes.”

Campaigners say one of the main problems with using SAF to reduce aviation’s long-term climate impact is that it allows the industry to continue to grow at rates incompatible with worsening climate. the climate crisis.

“Even if alternative fuels develop as expected, and even if prices drop and availability increases, the idea that they will be available to allow the industry to continue its current growth is completely unrealistic,” Alethea Warrington, activist at the climate charity Possible, told CNBC by phone.

“It’s just not viable to have a huge increase in emissions now and hopefully you can magically solve this problem in a few decades,” Warrington said. “It just won’t work.”

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