On the 14th of May, the UK’s Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps MP, announced plans for a net zero transatlantic flight by the end of 2023. This pioneering test flight will be supported by up to £1 million of “competition funding”. This initiative has emerged from the UK’s Jet Zero Council, a partnership between industry and government that aims to deliver new technologies and innovative ways to cut aviation emissions while supporting the UK economy.
As the UK government points out: “Currently one of the highest single emitters of greenhouse gases, aviation is one of our biggest challenges when it comes to making transport green, but the investment and innovations such as SAF are there to make guilt-free flying a reality.” The government’s target is a 10% SAF uptake by 2030. The £1 million funding from the competition fund is in addition to £180 million in Treasury support to develop new UK SAF plants.
The government forecasts that the sustainable aviation fuel industry could support up to 5,200 UK jobs directly and a further 13,600 through global exports; these forecasts assume that there is sufficient feed stock to create the necessary biofuel. The pioneering flight will be powered by Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) made from waste food, used cooking oil or household waste. Currently, jet regulations do not allow flights to use 100% SAF, so SAF use needs to be complemented by additional decarbonisation measures to be fully net zero.
Fuel specifications are not the only barrier preventing a higher uptake of SAF. High fuel production costs, technology risk at commercial scale and feedstocks availability are some of the challenges that government and industry are jointly working to overcome.Indro Mukerjee, CEO of Innovate UK, said about the launch
We all want to find easy ways of reducing our carbon emissions. We understandably look for the most cost-efficient way and hope that others will do more so that we can do less. Most of us, perhaps the overwhelming majority of us, hope that others will bear the costs of decarbonisation while we reap the benefits. SAF from biomass, waste food, and household waste is attractive for aviation because it is the least disruptive solution.
But there are significant problems with this approach.
1. Biofuels compete with food production
Even before the war in Ukraine, food insecurity around the world was rising. Ukraine and Russia account for 29% of global wheat exports and 62% of sunflower oil. This invasion is likely to exacerbate food price inflation in emerging markets and developing economies and impact some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries.
In the New Scientist, Michael Le Page, has pointed out that the US and Europe could compensate for the loss of Ukraine’s grain exports by scrapping biofuel mandates, helping to avoid a food price shock. In the US, a third of the maize grown is converted into ethanol and blended into petrol. Around 90 million tonnes is used for ethanol, nearly double the 50 million tonnes exported by Ukraine and Russia. In the European Union, 12 million tonnes of grain, including wheat and maize, is turned into ethanol, around 7 per cent of the bloc’s production.
Food price increases contributed to the Arab Spring in 2011, and the lack of stable food supplies contributed to the conflict in Syria and the subsequent brutal civil war. The UN reported this month that in just two years, the number of severely food insecure people has doubled, from 135 million pre-pandemic to 276 million today. Global food prices have risen by nearly one-third in the past year, fertiliser by more than half, and oil prices by almost two-thirds. The UN warns that “If high fertiliser prices continue, today’s crisis in grain and cooking oil could affect many other foods including rice, impacting billions of people in Asia and the Americas.”
2. Biofuels cannot meet the demand for aviation fuel
Analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA) reveals that aviation accounts for around 15% of global oil demand growth up to 2030 and that aviation will account for 3.5% of global energy-related CO2 emissions by 2030, up from just over 2.5% today, despite ongoing improvements in aviation efficiency. The IEA anticipates biofuels reaching around 10% of aviation fuel demand by 2030, and close to 20% by 2040.
Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta has pointed out that if they filled all their planes for one day with SAF, the carrier would soak up a year’s worth of U.S. SAF.
3. AirFrance, easyJet, IAG and KLM have called for tougher EU biofuel regulations
The Fuelling Flight Project group has pointed to “the risk of massive capital investments in things that increase emissions compared to fossil fuels and/or that become stranded assets” and called for “future proof sustainability requirements” higher than the ones in the European Commission’s Renewable Energy Directive, including “clear exclusions of unsustainable feedstocks and pathways such as biofuels from dedicated cropland and PFAD (Palm Fatty Acid Distillate).” The group has called for higher sustainability standards before SAF is prioritised and ramped up. They further suggest that “only EU-sourced feedstocks, electrofuels and other renewable fuels of non-biological origin” should be included.
Competition for limited resources, particularly in relation to international transport, will not solve the global climate challenge.Fuelling Flight Project group
There are good reasons to doubt that net-zero by 2050 will be enough to avoid the devastating consequences of climate change. As I wrote here back in October: Politicians continue to make promises for future leaders with commitments for Net-Zero by 2050. Setting aside concerns that net-zero is a dangerous trap. It is dangerous because it perpetuates a belief in technological salvation in the future, which undermines the need to cut emissions now.