When an estimated 20,000 people arrive in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference this weekend, they will raise an inevitable mockery about the tons of carbon emitted by the planes so many travel on.
The airline industry, acknowledging the problem, pledged this month to reach net zero flying by 2050. But the “sustainable aviation fuel” that forms the core of its strategy is scarce, costing multiples of jet fuel and, in some cases, causing changes in analysts to say. Agricultural land undermining emissions targets.
Aviation is one of the hardest industries to decarbonise, and technologies like electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft are years away from carrying a plane full of people for long distances. Commercial aviation accounts for up to 5 percent of global warming and its travel growth is “unparalleled” by any other mode of transportation, led by middle-class and white-collar travelers in developing and emerging economies, according to the International Energy Agency.
The IATA 2050 target relies heavily on changing the fuel mix to achieve nearly two-thirds of the planned reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The trade group estimates that around 450 billion liters per year of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will be needed in 2050, or about two-thirds of total fuel consumption. SAF’s current annual production is just 100 million liters, Iata estimates.
United Airlines has laid out plans to purchase nearly 7 billion liters of SAF over the next 20 years, which it says is the industry’s largest commitment. One of its jets flew a test flight from Houston this month with an engine that burned fuel derived from sugars in corn.
But sustainable fuels still represent less than 1 percent of the fuel the United States currently burns in an average year.
“There is no cost-competitive sustainable aviation fuel yet with conventional jet fuel,” United CEO Scott Kirby told the Financial Times. “That’s why it’s important for us to invest and lower the cost curve.”
The vast majority of SAF today is made from animal fats and vegetable oils, including used cooking oil. Analysts said it is likely that these feedstocks will prevail for at least several years.
Whereas conventional jet fuel costs about 50 cents per liter to produce oil at today’s oil prices of more than $80 a barrel, SAF refined from vegetable fats and oils can cost between 85 cents and $1.50 per liter, according to the International Energy Agency. The same feedstocks are the building blocks for renewable diesel, a biofuel for which there is also growing demand.
The cost means the fuel system is trapped in a “chicken-and-egg situation,” according to Anna Mascolo, head of aviation at Royal Dutch Shell.
Fuel companies like Shell say they need guaranteed demand to justify spending capital on new biorefineries. But airlines will be reluctant to stick to that demand if the price isn’t right because fuel accounts for up to 30 percent of their costs.
“It’s not simple,” Mascolo said. “Demonstrating commitment on the demand side is very important.”
Governments have policy tools to break the deadlock: a carbon tax that would raise the cost of conventional jet fuel, a mandate for a set percentage of all fuels to be sustainable or tax credits for cleaner fuels. The airline industry prefers tax breaks.
It’s the only way we’re going to do it,” Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines, said in an interview. “We don’t have the financial viability to pay three to four times today’s cost, and energy producers wouldn’t make that huge investment to create this product without knowing they’re going to have a customer.”
While the price of carbon across industries is ultimately the best answer to combating climate change, Kirby said, “I don’t think we should single out one industry.”
The sustainable fuel can reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent because it is made largely from biomass that absorbs carbon dioxide when it is alive, according to Iata.
However, cultivating the land to produce biofuels could change the equation. A 2018 publication by the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization stated that for certain aviation fuels made from palm oil and soybean oil, the resulting land-use changes “could cancel all of the fuel’s benefits in terms of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.” .
It doesn’t add anything,” said Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Riverside.
“It doubles as if people say they don’t want to eat meat anymore and you take that land that used to grow grain to feed meat and grow biomass for aviation,” Babcock added. “But other than that, if the aviation industry wanted to produce 400 billion liters of fuel from biomass, it would need 100 million hectares of land” — an area the size of Egypt.
Airlines and fuel executives deny that the SAF will squeeze agricultural supplies. Robert Boyd, Iata’s assistant director for the aviation environment, said the group would not classify the fuel as sustainable if feedstock production competes with food supplies or contributes to deforestation.
“We will be providing aviation fuel that is sustainable and not by using agricultural products,” Kirby said at United. “For me, this is important.”
Environmental groups raise questions about these guarantees of supply. Indonesia has been pushing for palm oil to be used as an aviation fuel, while EU imports are using cooking oil to make biofuels from countries including China, Malaysia and Indonesia, complicating the approval process for supplies, the European lobby group says, on transport and the environment.
Aviation is not the least part of the zero-zero vision of the airline industry. Iata’s plan was based on estimates that show air traffic will continue to grow at 3 percent annually between 2019 and 2050.
“IATA’s goal is unrealistic. Not because SAFs are unrealistic, or because of numbers, but because there is no place in their forecasts that they accept that aviation should not grow as much as expected,” said Andrew Murphy, aviation director of transportation and the environment.
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