António Guterres, said on 23rd March, we must move toward “net-zero electricity generation by 2035 for all developed economies and 2040 for the rest of the world” and establish “a global phase-down of existing oil and gas production compatible with the 2050 global net-zero target”
Unlike most other airlines easyJet has focused on the transition to hydrogen, backing the technology change that the world and the travel and tourism sector needs. The problem is not flying, the problem is the dirty fuel, the greenhouse gases emitted by the engines. Clean flying requires that the aviation industry transitions away from fossil fuels and biofuels to a clean alternative.
Thomas Haagensen, easyJet’s European director, says “We want to make sure that investments in [sustainable aviation fuels] don’t distract from any investments in hydrogen, for instance, where we see the future of aviation for short-haul.” “Everyone needs to start thinking about the future technology and about hydrogen as a potential solution”. Haagensen is confident that the challenges involved in switching to hydrogen, will be overcome with massive investment in research and testing, and hydrogen has to be the focus.
As John DeCicco, a Research Professor at the University of Michigan, pointed out years ago, as many have before and since, burning biofuels also emits CO2. The problem is that CO2 is emitted faster than it is absorbed by trees, plant life or the oceans, consequently it accumulates in the atmosphere, causing global warming and climate change.
“When biofuels are burned, they emit roughly the same amount of CO2 per unit of energy as petroleum fuels. Therefore, using biofuels instead of fossil fuels does not change how quickly CO2 flows into the climate bathtub. To reduce the buildup of atmospheric CO2 levels, biofuel production must open up the CO2 drain – that is, it must speed up the net rate at which carbon is removed from the atmosphere.”
DeCicco’s paper concludes, “Once carbon has been removed from the air, it rarely makes sense to expend energy and emissions to process it into biofuels only to burn the carbon and re-release it into the atmosphere.”
Back in 2017, a group of 177 Dutch scientists wrote to the economic affairs minister pointing out that the use of crop-based biofuels is a ‘false solution’ to climate problems, ‘we urgently implore you to acknowledge that blending food crops into fuel causes severe damage to climate, nature and communities.’ They cited European Commission research showing that burning blended fuels leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions and that biodiesel from food crops emits on average 1.8 times as much carbon dioxide as fossil fuels and in the case of biodiesel made from palm oil three times as much.
Using land to produce biofuels is also questionable, given food shortages and the damage done to soils by intensive farming. Soil holds three times more carbon than the atmosphere, but in the UK arable soils have lost 40 to 60 per cent of their organic carbon due to intensive agriculture. Biofuels are not the answer.
In 2021 The Fuelling Flight Project, which included easyJet, KLM and IAG, 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].
Biofuels have a significant advantage that they are drop-in fuels, the option requiring the least re-engineering and investment. Proponents of SAF argue that hydrogen is expensive to produce but the economics are shifting.
Malian wells could produce hydrogen gas at 50 cents per kilo, one-tenth of the cost of hydrogen created through electrolysis with solar, wind, geothermal, or other green energies. Hydrogen gas is constantly being made underground as water interacts with iron minerals at high pressures and temperatures in cratons. Ian Munro, CEO of Helios Aragon, a startup pursuing hydrogen in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees, told Science his break-even costs might end up between 50 and 70 cents, adding that would revolutionize energy production.
You can explore the science behind geologically produced renewable hydrogen here.
Hydrogen is a viable, clean flying solution – it needs investment. It can be extracted from the ground and made by electrolysis using renewable energy and it burns without greenhouse gas emissions
As Rebecca Solnit, the Guardian’s US columnist, wrote of those lobbying to continue burning fossil fuels
“They come up with endlessly creative ways to continue extracting and using fossil fuel. One of their favorites is to make commitments that can be punted off to the future, which is why one recent climate slogan is “delay is the new denial”. Another is to pretend that they are somehow still looking for a good solution and once they find it they will be very happy to use it. A holy grail, a hail Mary pass, a magic bullet, a miracle cure – or just a distracting tennis ball that too many journalists, like golden retrievers, are happy to chase.”
If you have Netflix watch Merchants of Doubt or read the book.