The aircraft will be powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). This low-emissions fuel is made from forestry or agricultural waste.
Virgin Atlantic has announced the launch of the world’s first ‘net-zero’ transatlantic flight.
The aircraft will be a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 and will fly between Heathrow, London, and John F Kennedy airport, New York. It is expected to take to the skies in 2023.
The flight will be powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). This low-emissions fuel is made from forestry or agricultural waste.
The use of these fuels will reduce carbon emissions by about 70% while the remaining 30% of the emissions will be offset by an investment in carbon removal technology – an initiative funded by the UK government’s Department for Transport.
Currently, safety regulators allow only a maximum of 50% SAF blended with kerosene to be used in commercial jet engines. However, UK’s transport minister Baroness Vere said the flight will establish that it is safe to fully power a passenger aircraft with the new fuels.
Virgin Atlantic CEO Shari Weiss indicated that “the research and results” of the pioneering 2023 flight “will be a huge step in fast tracking SAF use across the aviation industry and support the investment, collaboration and urgency needed to produce SAF at scale.”
The UK government has pumped in £1mn towards supporting the Virgin flight, and has pledged £165mn to expedite the commercialisation of SAF plants.
Carbon emissions of the aviation industry
Aviation accounts for 2.5% of global carbon emissions, but the industry’s overall contribution to climate change is higher because of its bearings on non-carbon pollutants in the atmosphere which encourage warming.
Hot exhaust gases from aircraft produce white streaks of water ice clouds in the sky when they meet the cold, low-pressure air of the atmosphere. These ‘condensation trails’, or contrails are thought to be responsible for two thirds of the climate effects of aviation.
Aviation is relying almost entirely on SAFs to steer its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 since other cleaner technology options such as electric or hydrogen powered aircraft are still unproven at scale.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), SAFs, which use ingredients like cooking oils and agricultural waste, are more expensive than traditional kerosene and are still only produced in tiny amounts.
According to industry figures, about 450bn litres a year of SAF will be needed by 2050. Annual SAF production in 2021 was only 100mn litres.
Are SAFs really green?
SAFs are not a new invention. These fuels have actually been around since 2011. Also, more than 450,000 flights have taken to the skies powered, at least in part, by SAF, IATA data shows.
However, despite its potential to reduce airplane environmental impact, SAF is not a magic bullet to tackle aviation emissions.
In fact, activists have accused SAF advocates of greenwashing the polluting industry.
For one, using SAF does not mean flying will be carbon neutral. The fuel emits at least as much CO2 as kerosene, which means it does not reduce the greenhouse gas or carbon emissions from airplanes’ use, though it can result in lower life cycle emissions.
Moreover, every study of SAF has found that the world will not be able to produce enough SAF to meet aviation’s climate goals.
The International Council on Clean Transportation indicated that creating enough SAF to replace jet fuel by 2050 would require converting all the world’s grasslands to biofuel crops, a feat clearly impossible.
Furthermore, if companies grow ‘virgin crops’ (not from waste) to offset emissions, these plantations can lead to deforestation and reduced biodiversity.
According to climate activists, the only way to significantly address the climate impacts of the continued rapid increase in aviation is a reduction in flying.
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