Guilty-free flights are one step closer to reality, the government said, as it gave Virgin Atlantic up to £1m to test the first transatlantic commercial flight powered by green fuel.
A regular Boeing 787 will fly from London to New York next year to demonstrate that long-haul flights can be fueled only with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
Environmentalists question SAF’s green credentials and argue that the only guaranteed way to reduce the impact of flying is to fly less.
But the government says the test flight will show that “guilt-free flights” are coming as it plans to add passengers.
Aviation Minister Baroness Weir told Sky News: “This will be the longest run on sustainable aviation fuel and it will be … absolutely key to showing other airlines and the rest of the world what we can do.”
Current rules only allow up to 50% SAF to be blended with regular jet fuel, kerosene, for use in commercial aircraft engines.
Virgin will lead a consortium that includes Rolls-Royce, Boeing and Imperial College London.
They said the plane must have crossed the Atlantic safely because they had made a test flight, but they could not say how far.
“The beauty of sustainable aviation fuel is that it’s a drop of fuel, which essentially means it smells and looks exactly like jet fuel,” said Virgin chief executive Shai Weiss.
Speaking from Heathrow Terminal 3, Baroness Weir said the flight was “absolutely” good for the environment as it would bring the UK closer to net-zero aviation, one of the hardest industries to decarbonize.
How sustainable is sustainable aviation fuel?
The government expects the test flight to be fueled “primarily” by waste oil and fat.
This would reduce emissions by 70% compared to kerosene, as they are waste and do not need to be extracted.
The remaining 30% will be offset through carbon offsets, although this can be difficult to get right.
But the government’s own climate adviser, the Council on Climate Change (CCC), has warned against over-reliance on SAF.
“It’s easy to get carried away, like people get carried away [nuclear] Fusion announcement…and say, ‘Oh, it’s about to break, so we don’t need to do anything [to reduce demand]'”.
“But our analysis shows that even by 2050, there won’t be enough SAF to do everything.”
Baroness Vere said: “I believe sustainable aviation fuel is sustainable, but … we need to look very carefully at [at] raw material. “
She added: “That’s why we need investment now to advance R&D [research and development] This will make these pathways happen. “
‘Really worrying’ government won’t cut demand
The government is counting on the SAF to help offset its planned 70% increase in passenger traffic. Faced with the CCC’s warnings, increases of up to 25% are possible while meeting climate targets.
The minister shot down calls for a frequent-flyer tax, which would allow everyone to take one or two trips a year and then gradually tax each flight after that.
“This government is against aviation emissions, not against flying,” she said. “We can keep flying because it’s good for our economy, it’s good for our friendships and seeing our families.”
Alethea Warrington, from climate charity Possible, said she was “really concerned that the government is refusing to do anything to curb demand for flights”.
She added that “emissions will increase significantly from which most people in the UK will not benefit”.
In the UK, 70% of flights are taken by 15% of the population, and 52% of them never fly abroad at all.
What is sustainable aviation fuel?
Sustainable aviation fuel can be made from waste products such as cooking oil or black garbage bag trash. This translates to a 70% reduction in life-cycle emissions because they don’t need to be extracted from the ground like regular jet fuel.
But they emit the same amount when burned in a jet engine, and there are concerns that the waste won’t be in constant supply.
SAF can also be made from plants. This form also produces the same emissions as kerosene when burned, but these could theoretically be absorbed again as new plants grow.
This form of SAF is particularly controversial because of concerns that monoculture is detrimental to life-sustaining ecosystems and that it requires land. It is also difficult to guarantee that new crops will absorb the same amount of emissions.
A third form involves making hydrogen from renewable sources and combining it with carbon dioxide captured from the air, but it’s very energy-intensive.
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