Airlines face long haul to reach sustainable fuel goals

When an estimated 20,000 people arrive in Glasgow for the UN climate change conference this weekend, they will draw inevitable jibes about the tonnes of carbon emitted by the aircraft many fly in on.

The airline industry, acknowledging the problem, this month pledged to reach net zero flying by 2050. But the “sustainable aviation fuel” that forms the core of its strategy is scarce, costs multiples of petroleum-based jet fuel and in some cases may cause changes in cropland that undercut emissions goals, analysts say.

Flying is one of the hardest industries to decarbonise and technologies such as electricity- or hydrogen-powered aircraft are years from carrying a plane full of people over long distances. Commercial aviation accounts up to 5 per cent of global warming and its travel growth is “unparalleled” by any other mode of transport, led by middle-class and white-collar flyers in developing and emerging economies, according to the International Energy Agency.

The International Air Transport Association’s (Iata) 2050 target relies heavily on changing fuel mixes to achieve nearly two-thirds of its planned reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The trade group estimates about 450bn litres a year of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will be needed in 2050, or about two-thirds of total fuel consumption. Current annual SAF production is only 100m litres, the Iata estimates.

United Airlines has laid out plans to buy nearly 7bn litres of SAF over the next 20 years, which it says is the biggest commitment in the industry. One of its jetliners took a test flight from Houston this month with an engine that burnt fuel derived from sugars found in corn.

But sustainable fuel still represents less than 1 per cent of the fuel United currently burns in a normal year.

“There’s no sustainable aviation fuel that is cost competitive yet with traditional jet fuel,” Scott Kirby, United chief executive, told the Financial Times. “That’s why it’s important for us to invest and drive down the cost curve.” 

The vast majority of SAF today is made from animal fats and vegetable oils, including used cooking oil. These feedstocks are likely to predominate for at least several years, analysts said.

While conventional jet fuel costs around 50 cents a litre to produce at today’s petroleum prices above $80 a barrel, SAF refined from fats and vegetable oils can cost between 85 cents and $1.50 a litre, according to the IEA. The same feedstocks are the building blocks of renewable diesel, a biofuel for which demand is also growing.

The aviation fuel system is trapped in a “chicken and egg situation”, says Anna Mascolo, Shell’s president of aviation © Ed Robinson/Shell

The expense means that the fuel system is trapped in a “chicken and egg situation”, according to Anna Mascolo, president of aviation at Royal Dutch Shell.

Fuel companies such as Shell say they need guaranteed demand to justify spending capital on new bio-refineries. But airlines will be reluctant to commit to that demand if the price is not right because fuel accounts for up to 30 per cent of their costs.

“It is not simple,” Mascolo said. “Showing commitment on the demand side is incredibly important.” 

Governments have policy levers to break the stalemate: a carbon tax that would drive up the cost of conventional jet fuel, a mandate for a specific percentage of all fuel to be sustainable or tax breaks for cleaner fuels. The aviation industry prefers tax breaks.

“It’s the only way we’re going to get it done,” Ed Bastian, chief executive at Delta Air Lines, said in an interview. “We don’t have the financial viability to pay three to four times today’s cost and the energy producers aren’t going to make this big investment to create this product without knowing they’re going to have a customer.” 

While a price on carbon across industries ultimately is the best answer to combating climate change, Kirby said that “I don’t think we should single out a single industry”. 

Column chart of Billion litres showing Sustainable aviation fuel required under Iata's net zero 2050 plan

Sustainable fuels can reduce carbon emissions by 70 per cent as they are largely made from biomass that absorbed CO2 when it was alive, according to Iata.

Yet cultivating land to produce biofuels can alter the equation. A 2018 publication by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization said that for certain kinds of aviation fuels made from palm oil and soyabean oil, resulting changes in land use “can negate all the benefits of the fuel in terms of mitigating GHG emissions”. 

“It doesn’t add up,” said Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Riverside.

“It adds up if people say they don’t want to eat meat any more and you take that land that used to grow feed grains for meat and grow biomass for aviation,” Babcock added. “But short of that, if the aviation industry wants to make 400bn litres of fuel from biomass, it will take 100m hectares of land” — an area the size of Egypt.

Airline and fuel executives deny that SAF will put pressure on agricultural supplies. Robert Boyd, Iata’s assistant director for aviation environment, said the group will not classify a fuel as sustainable if its feedstock production competes with food supplies or contributes to deforestation.

At United, “we will source sustainable aviation fuel not using farm products,” Kirby said. “To me, that is important.” 

Environmental groups are raising questions about such supply assurances. Indonesia has been pushing for palm oil to be used as aviation fuel, while the EU imports used cooking oil to make biofuels from countries including China, Malaysia and Indonesia, complicating the process of certifying supplies, says Transport & Environment, a European lobby group.

Flying less is not part of the airline industry’s net zero vision. Iata’s plan relied on estimates that show air traffic continuing to grow by 3 per cent a year between 2019 and 2050.

“Iata’s goal is unrealistic. Not because SAFs are unrealistic, or because of the numbers, but because nowhere in their forecasting are they accepting that aviation shouldn’t grow as much as forecast,” said Andrew Murphy, Transport & Environment’s aviation director.

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Airlines face long haul to reach sustainable fuel goals

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