Sustainable aviation fuel paves the way for landmark transatlantic net zero flight, but with vital, voluntary carbon offsetting only introduced by just over 10% of international air travel association airlines, when will offsetting become mandatory?
Department for Transport (DfT) announce aspirations for net zero transatlantic flight during Grant Shapps’ visit to the USA.
Spearheaded by the Jet Zero Council (JZC), the DfT announced the transatlantic net zero flight initiative on the 14th of May during Grant Shapps’ visit to the USA; during the visit, Shapps also met with his US counterpart Pete Buttigieg as well as fuel suppliers and aviation industry leaders.[i],[ii] The flight will achieve its carbon neutral effect with the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF); it will be a world first with the venture utilising 100% SAF.[iii] The ambitious 2023 target is aimed at fostering the development of a world-leading SAF industry moving forward in the UK that could create 5,200 primary jobs and a further 13,600 in the secondary distribution of the fuel; the industry estimates that annual turnover could grow to £2.3 billion by 2040.[iv] The JZC’s role in the development of the SAF industry in the UK is to encourage “grassroots innovation” aimed at making the UK the centre of the world SAF industry and able to attract both UK and international investment.[v] Shapps commented on the announcement.
SAF is low carbon, not no carbon
SAFs represent a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) use compared to conventional aviation fuels.[vi] This figure is put forward by the department for transport, who acknowledges that achieving a net zero flight will require greenhouse gas removals alongside SAF adoption. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) support the figure presented by the DfT, stating that the life cycle analysis of SAF can, in some cases, provide a reduction of 80% in related GHG emissions.[vii] The IATA also points out the co-benefits of waste derived SAF in that the SAF reduces not only aviation-related emissions but also municipal waste site related emissions, the removal of which will function as greenhouse gas removal as part of the lifecycle analysis.[viii] The viability of widespread net zero flight ambitions will still rely on carbon offsetting, and troublingly only 30 of the IATA’s 290 member airlines have introduced voluntary carbon offsetting programs.[ix] Despite the low uptake, the IATAs carbon offsetting standards have been audited by the Quality Assurance Standard, who undertake audits of offsetting schemes based against a 40 point checklist, and it was found that the IATAs scheme meets the highest standard.[x] Only four other organisations worldwide can make this same claim. In the IATAs net zero plan, which will reach carbon neutrality in 2050, relies on 19% of reductions being achieved by offsetting alongside 65% by SAFs.[xi]
The IATAs net zero strategy breakdown
SAF has also been pointed out by industry experts to be economically inviable at its current price and is not competitive with current fuels.[xii] With 30% of airline costs being on fuel, United Airlines’ chief executive expressed his view that investment was “important” to “drive down the cost curve”.[xiii] Transport and Environment, a campaign group for green transport, also point out that the carbon neutral synthesis of SAFs relies on adequate production of green hydrogen and the use of direct air capture to source the carbon.[xiv]
Mandating or encouraging?
With 84% of the IATAs net zero strategy relying on offsets and SAFs, it is of concern that neither is being legally driven as yet, unlike Paris Agreement targets. In 2021 it was announced that the DfT were considering requiring aviation fuel suppliers to have at least 10% of their annual output be SAFs.[xv] This policy is designed to accelerate innovation in the SAF industry to meet the CCC’s most ambitious targets of 7% SAF use in the UK by 2030.[xvi] The cutting-edge nature of SAF development is responsible for the limitations of the target. This means that offsetting schemes must be considered to a greater scope in the interim to ensure the targets set by the IATA can be met. Offsetting also has its own set of unique issues; for example, Greenpeace found one year ago that the carbon offsetting schemes used by EasyJet, British Airways and United Airlines offsetting projects were run by logging companies that were “saving” forests that weren’t in reality under threat of destruction.[xvii] In the year since these claims, these airlines may well have redirected their offsetting practices to a more reputable source, but it still raises the prospect that offset schemes can be misrepresented. That’s why it’s important that not only legislation is engaged in ensuring offsetting is completed to an acceptable standard, but also that within all organisations, that potential is untapped and that there are members of staff expert in critically assessing offsetting schemes.
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