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Aviation Environmental Federation In a bold move destined to redefine international travel, Virgin Atlantic is gearing up for a groundbreaking London to New York flight on the 28th of November, claiming to pioneer a new era with an aircraft powered entirely by so-called ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuel’ (SAF). As the world looks on, a deeper exploration into SAF’s purported environmental benefits raises critical questions about the aviation industry’s commitment to genuine sustainability.

The Mirage of Zero Emissions

At first glance, the use of 100% SAF seems a triumphant leap towards reducing aviation’s carbon footprint. However, this eco-friendly veneer masks a more complex reality. Despite the industry’s claims, these alternative fuels – still fundamentally hydrocarbons – emit as much CO2 as traditional kerosene upon combustion. The proclaimed CO2 savings are mere ‘net’ reductions, factoring in the assumption that biological materials used in SAF production, such as waste biomass, offset emissions through prior CO2 absorption. This theory, however, overlooks the energy-intensive production processes and fails to address the existing atmospheric CO2 levels.

A Drop in the Ocean: The Supply Dilemma

While Virgin’s initiative may demonstrate technical feasibility, it barely scratches the surface of a much larger supply issue. Currently, aviation regulations permit only a 50% blend of SAF in fuel mixtures. The limited supply – a mere 2.6% of the UK’s total aviation fuel and around 0.1% globally – highlights a significant gap between ambition and reality. Scaling up SAF production poses yet another challenge, with the industry grappling with limited resources and competing demands for biological waste and renewable energy.

Synthetic e-Fuel: A Costly Alternative

The spotlight turns to synthetic e-fuel, a potential alternative made from captured carbon and green hydrogen. However, its exorbitant production costs and the enormous requirement for renewable energy resources make it a less feasible solution. The aviation industry’s pivot to synthetic e-fuels seems more a tactical diversion than a viable, large-scale solution.

Political Rhetoric vs. Reality

Contrary to political rhetoric painting SAF as a panacea for aviation emissions, Department for Transport forecasts tell a different story. Even under the optimistic ‘High Ambition’ Jet Zero pathway, SAF’s role in reducing emissions is overshadowed by carbon offsets and demand reductions through carbon pricing. This disparity between ministerial enthusiasm and official projections raises questions about the sincerity of political commitment to true environmental sustainability.

The Bigger Picture: Decarbonizing Aviation

The current fascination with SAF risks overshadowing the broader challenge of decarbonizing aviation. The Climate Change Committee has critiqued the Jet Zero Strategy for over-reliance on nascent technology and alternative fuels, highlighting the urgent need to curb demand growth. With genuinely zero-emission technologies still on the horizon, the immediate solution to aviation’s environmental impact lies in reducing flight frequencies – a reality the industry is hesitant to embrace.

In light of these revelations, a recent report by Cerulogy, commissioned by AEF, scrutinizes the role of alternative fuels in aviation decarbonization. This comprehensive study, along with a forthcoming policy paper, aims to shed light on the misconceptions surrounding SAF and emphasize the importance of transparent net emissions claims.

Critical Questions for the Industry

The narrative surrounding SAF usage by airlines warrants a closer examination. Key questions arise about the actual emission reductions achieved, the scalability of fuel sources, the overall impact on an airline’s carbon footprint, the sustainability of alternative fuels, and the transparency issues inherent in the ‘book and claim’ system of SAF credits.

Further Reading

For those seeking a deeper understanding, several recent reports and studies provide valuable insights. The Royal Society’s report on “Net zero aviation fuels,” T&E’s analysis of the unsustainable nature of ‘waste’ biofuels, and academic research led by Prof David Lee delve into the resource constraints and environmental impacts of alternative aviation fuels, offering a comprehensive view of the challenges ahead.




Written by: Charmaine Lu