Low-carbon air travel took an unexpected step forward this week as Virgin Atlantic announced it would fly the first commercial airliner across the Atlantic Ocean without the use of fossil fuels. The eight-hour flight will employ a combination of biofuels to demonstrate the possibilities of flying large jets while emitting 70% less carbon than kerosene.
Commercial aviation makes up about 2% of global emissions today. That may seem like a minor impact until you consider that 80% of the global population has never ridden in an airplane. As flights continue to expand across Asia and Africa, emissions from the sector are expected to balloon to 22% of the world’s carbon profile.
Sustainable Air Fuel (SAF) is a catch-all phrase for nine different processes and formulations of low-carbon jet fuel that the industry says could help meet 65% of aviation’s 2050 carbon emissions goals.
Virgin Atlantic’s upcoming SAF flight will run on two of them. The most ubiquitous SAF comes from hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids, known as HEFA. It’s a biofuel derived from a combination of pork fat and beef tallow and residual vegetable oil known simply as “yellow grease”.
Other solutions for low-carbon flight have been thrown around, but for commercial flight, the focus is primarily on reducing the use of carbon-intensive fuel over electrification.
In 2017, British airline Easyjet announced a partnership with Wright Electric to produce a sleek, all-electric jet engine that would carry 186 passengers on short- to mid-haul flights. But after scattered progress, Easyjet announced last year that it was pivoting to green hydrogen.
The introduction of lower-carbon fuels is an encouraging step from a high-polluting industry that has so far been long on pledges and short on progress. Considering that the world is on track for a disastrous three degrees of warming by century’s end, every ton of carbon not emitted into the atmosphere counts.
But as is often the case, focusing on niche solutions carries the risk of distracting from the structural changes that could rapidly decarbonize flying. Two of the airline industry’s largest trade associations, The International Air Transport Association (AITA) and Airlines for Europe (E4A), have aggressively lobbied against European legislation to include airline emissions in its ETS cap-and-trade system and a proposed kerosene fuel tax.
Carbon emissions from commercial flight will not be subject to reductions in Europe’s cap and trade scheme until 2026. Meanwhile, jet kerosene fuel is currently exempt from taxes in Europe. According to a 2021 report by Influence Map, the airline industry’s largest operators and manufacturers have spent €6.75 annually to fight both regulations.
That lobbying money appears to be paying dividends. One estimate found that a European kerosene tax would yield €34.2 billion each year that could be applied for climate measures, but after two years of negotiations, a proposed tax is at a standstill and progress does not seem forthcoming.
Still another question is whether the airlines will end up footing the bill for decarbonization once. A report by McKinsey estimates that reaching net zero in aviation will require roughly $5 trillion– a pretty penny that could chew up a decade’s worth of revenue.
The airline industry has all but admitted that the enormous costs of decarbonization will be passed along to customers, with cost increases hitting European customers first. The ReFuel EU regulations call for sustainable fuels to account for 2% of airline fuel by 2025, followed by 6% in 2030 before leaping to a full 70% by 2050. An ING analysis estimated that the EU regulations would drive up prices by €230 for a round-trip flight between Barcelona and Tokyo by 2035.
In that context, the success of Virgin Atlantic’s program is a critical case study to see if the industry can clean up its carbon footprint on a faster timeline.
Finally, all of these economic considerations still don’t take into account the climate risk attached to flying itself.
Climate change has increased clear-air turbulence by 55% since the 1980s, particularly along the north Atlantic routes that are some of the most-traveled in the world. Warmer air creates small, localized pockets of unstable air at higher altitudes, making turbulence hard to see and nearly impossible to predict in general weather models.
Even the most powerful currents of turbulence aren’t a threat to bring down commercial airliners, but they still carry a cost: $500 million a year to be precise. It’s impossible to predict how much that will increase in future climate scenarios, but it is certain that the tab for airlines will grow as they are forced to protect passengers and their assets.
Taken together, the commercial aviation industry will either respond to government mandates, or from decreased demand as passengers opt for less-rocky travel options that are increasingly cost competitive. In that case, the future of flying will likely mean a bumpy ride for passengers, or for airline earnings, but probably not both.
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