April 24, 2024

Well-oiled machine

Not a week goes by without a SAF announcement from an airline, but is it enough to get to Jet Zero? Gary Noakes investigates

If you listen to airlines, oil companies and governments, you’d be forgiven for thinking sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) was the panacea for all our climate change ills.

Whether produced from household or agricultural waste or made by using the most environmentally-friendly process – direct air capture – SAF is regarded the eventual replacement for kerosene. Initially it will be blended with conventional fuel but once production increases and engines are adapted, it will be the sole propellant.

SAF is aviation’s major weapon in the fight against climate change and to counter the bad press that flying continues to receive.

The need to tackle global warming was underlined beautifully last July when former transport secretary Grant Shapps chose the UK’s hottest day ever to unveil his Jet Zero Strategy at the Farnborough Air Show, where tarmac softened as the mercury reached 40C. Jet Zero commits UK domestic aviation to achieving net zero emissions by 2040 and for all airports in England to be zero-emission by the same date, with the whole industry net zero by 2050.

“Virgin Atlantic has sourced 70 million gallons of SAF over the next seven years at Los Angeles and San Francisco”

SAF is a key component of Jet Zero but also its major obstacle because of scarcity of supply globally. This was illustrated in December when United Airlines, which has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050 without offsetting, promised to purchase 7.1 million gallons of SAF – almost twice all current global airline SAF commitments. It is a laudable quest, but one to be seen against United’s annual need for four billion gallons of conventional kerosene.

Delta is similarly striving to secure supplies, describing SAF as “our greatest medium-term solution to drastically reduce aviation’s carbon footprint” while admitting: “There is not enough SAF to run a fleet Delta’s size for a single day.”

Delta has so far signed enough SAF deals to meet half of the 200 million gallons a year needed to meet its 10% target by 2030.

Via Delta, Virgin Atlantic has sourced 70 million gallons of SAF over the next seven years at Los Angeles and San Francisco. Manufacturer Gevo separates sugars and proteins from industrial corn, turning the sugar to SAF and protein to animal feed.

Virgin says this will power the equivalent of more than 500 transatlantic flights from Los Angeles.

Carriers are meanwhile offering offsetting schemes to business travellers in a variety of forms.

Last year, Lufthansa Group began introducing business and economy class Green Fares on European services, with 80% CO² compensation via offsetting projects and 20% via SAF.

It offers Corporate Value Fares, which automatically include offsetting and perks like free Wi-Fi or better booking conditions. Lufthansa PartnerPlusBenefit points can also be converted to SAF, something the group said had proved popular, with a minimum 4,500 points – corresponding to €50 – required.

With supply of SAF so restricted it is two to five times more expensive than kerosene, depending on source and location, and passengers will ultimately foot the bill.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates just over 2.4 million gallons of SAF were produced there in 2019, compared to 21.5 billion gallons of conventional kerosene used by US airlines, making SAF only 0.01% of its total jet fuel supply.

“Across the Atlantic, there is more optimism conversion to SAF is achievable”

As part of Jet Zero, the UK government has committed to building “at least five” commercial scale SAF plants by 2025, helped by £165 million from the Advanced Fuels Fund. Of this, £22 million will be reserved for direct air capture projects – the most sustainable form of SAF because it combines captured CO² with hydrogen to make liquid fuel.

In Europe, a new RefuelEU political agreement sees regulators opt for a mandate approach to build the necessary demand for SAF, but the GBTA believes this needs to be backed by financial support.

Across the Atlantic, there is more optimism conversion to SAF is achievable. The aim of the US Government’s SAF Grand Challenge is to supply 100% of aviation fuel demand by 2050. The US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy estimates a billion dry tons of biomass “can be collected sustainably each year”. This includes wood mill waste, corn grain and algae, the latter being a SAF production source in which United Airlines has invested $5 million.

US officials say this would be “enough to produce 50-60 billion gallons of low carbon biofuels, adding: “This vast resource contains enough feedstock to meet the projected fuel demand of the US aviation industry.”

The US ambitions are backed by the government to the tune of $4.3 billion, putting UK investment in the shade.

“Today there is not enough SAF available, so some type of offsetting is needed, and it will probably still be needed in 2040 or 2050”

Here, environmentalists are quick to point out flaws in Jet Zero. In March, climate change charity Possible asked for a judicial review, arguing Jet Zero relies on “pie in the sky technologies”.

“SAF is a blanket phrase the aviation industry has come up with that creates a misleading impression,” said Alethea Warrington, Aviation Campaigns Manager.

“The idea that these fuels will permit the industry to service a 70% increase in demand is completely unrealistic. We need to move away from burning things because there is no sustainable pathway to create fuels from biomass or waste. Biowaste, for example, can be used as fertiliser but not if it’s being burnt in jet engines.”

Warrington adds: “From a business travel perspective, the only answer, unfortunately, is to fly a lot less.”

Andreas Slettvoll, Chief Executive of carbon impact specialists CHOOOSE, believes offsetting, despite its flaws, will be around for decades. “Is it a long-term solution? No. Is it better than doing nothing? I think so,” he says.

“Today there is not enough SAF available, so some type of offsetting is needed, and it will probably still be needed in 2040 or 2050. Will that be the same type of offsetting as today? I hope not, I hope we will see more (carbon) removals.”

Even if SAF production gears up in Europe, Slettvoll points out there will be parts of the world that lag. “There is no SAF in Latin America or Africa, so how do those airlines contribute and more importantly, how do their passengers address it? Today, I don’t see any other model than ‘book and claim’. Most airlines have no chance of local SAF access,” he argues.

When he unveiled Jet Zero, Shapps heralded it as the start of “guilt-free flying”, but many others do not see it that way, particularly with the miniscule amount of SAF available. Excuse the pun, but expect this issue to generate lots more hot air in years to come.