‘Magical thinking’: hopes for sustainable jet fuel not realistic, report finds

Source: By Oliver Milman, The Guardian • Posted: Tuesday, May 14, 2024

IPS report says replacement fuels well off track to replace kerosene within timeframe needed to avert climate disaster

Silhouette of plane flying with yellow moon in background
Globally, flying accounts for about 2% of all emissions. Photograph: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

Hopes that replacement fuels for airplanes will slash carbon pollution are misguided and support for these alternatives could even worsen the climate crisis, a new report has warned.

There is currently “no realistic or scalable alternative” to standard kerosene-based jet fuels, and touted “sustainable aviation fuels” are well off track to replace them in a timeframe needed to avert dangerous climate change, despite public subsidies, the report by the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive thinktank, found.

“While there are kernels of possibility, we should bring a high level of skepticism to the claims that alternative fuels will be a timely substitute for kerosene-based jet fuels,” the report said.

Chuck Collins, co-author of the report, said: “To bring these fuels to the scale needed would require massive subsidies, the trade-offs would be unacceptable and would take resources aware from more urgent decarbonization priorities.

“It’s a huge greenwashing exercise by the aviation industry. It’s magical thinking that they will be able to do this.”

In the US, Joe Biden’s administration has set a goal for 3bn gallons of sustainable aviation fuel, which is made from non-petroleum sources such as food waste, woody biomass and other feedstocks, to be produced by 2030, which it said will cut aviation’s planet-heating emissions by 20%. Globally, flying accounts for about 2% of all emissions, with the world’s wealthiest people the prime instigators of this form of pollution.

This sustainable fuels target will require an enormous 18,887% increase in production, based on 2022 production levels, this decade, the new report found.

“It’s just not scalable,” said Collins.

This is despite plenty of recent taxpayer support – last week, the US Congress agreed to authorize the Federal Aviation Administration for a further five years, with expanded funding for sustainable aviation fuels development. Tax breaks for producing these fuels are also offered via the Inflation Reduction Act.

Various airlines have included goals around sustainable aviation fuels in their own promises to cut pollution. Virgin Atlantic garnered headlines last year by staging the first transatlantic flight using 100% of these fuels, rather than in a blend with traditional jet fuel.

“The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it,” said Sir Richard Branson, founder of the airline, about the flight.

But the new Institute for Policy Studies report argues that the airline industry has missed previous goals to ramp up sustainable aviation production and that boosting use of the fuel source may even damage the environment and global climate targets.

Burning sustainable aviation fuels still emits some carbon dioxide, while the land use changes needed to produce the fuels can also lead to increased pollution. Ethanol biofuel, made from corn, is used in these fuels, and meeting the Biden administration’s production goal, the report found, would require 114m acres of corn in the US, about a 20% increase in current land area given over to to the crop.

In the UK, meanwhile, 50% of all agricultural land will have to be given up to sustain current flight passenger levels if jet fuel was entirely replaced.

“Agricultural land use changes could threaten global food security as well as nature-based carbon sequestration solutions such as the preservation of forests and wetlands,” the report states. “As such, SAF production may actively undermine the Paris agreement goal of achieving greatly reduced emissions by 2050.”

Phil Ansell, director of the Center for Sustainable Aviation at the University of Illinois, said the aviation industry had been faced with a much steeper challenge than other sectors to decarbonize. Large commercial airliners cannot be outfitted with batteries, unlike cars, due to their weight, while progress in other fuel forms, such as hydrogen, has been complicated.

“There’s an underappreciation of how big the energy problem is for aviation. We are still many years away from zero pollution flights,” he said.

“But it’s true that the industry has been slow to pick things up. We are now trying to find solutions, but we are working at this problem and realizing it’s a lot harder than we thought. We are late to the game. We are in the dark ages in terms of sustainability, compared to other sectors.”