The world’s first passenger flight powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) — made from waste products — took off Tuesday morning from London to New York.
While the journey marks a major milestone for the aviation world’s low-carbon future goals, environmental advocates have cautioned against the industry’s optimistic and ambitious outlook for SAF-fueled flights.
While fuel standards allow only for a 50% SAF blend in commercial jet engines, the Virgin Atlantic flight proves that SAF “can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it’s the only viable solution for decarbonizing long-haul aviation,” the company’s CEO Shai Weiss said in a press release.
Virgin is a founding member of the UK’s JetZero Council — a government-led initiative to deliver at least 10% SAF in the country’s fuel mix by 2030 and zero emission flights within a generation. “There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment,” Weiss said.
Reaching the industry’s goal of “net zero” emissions by 2050 means that flights will have to use 65% SAF fuel by 2030 — an ambitious target given the high costs and low volume of sustainable fuel today. SAF accounts for less than 0.1% of the world’s total jet fuel right now and costs three to five times as much as regular jet fuel, Reuters reports. And while companies like Rolls Royce are making plane engines compatible with sustainable fuel for future flights, there is more than a 90% risk that the industry will not meet the E.U.‘s goals for SAF availability by 2025, the head of the International Airlines Group warned.
Environmental advocacy groups have accused the UK government of “greenwashing” with the claim that SAF-fueled flights will make “guilt-free flying a reality.” Without enough cooking oil to meet aviation demands, and the lack of agricultural land in the UK to ramp up biofuel production, advocates are accusing airlines of “misleading” flyers about the impact of SAF. “For now, the only way to cut CO2 from aviation is to fly less,” one environmental activist told iNews. A group of scientists have warned that the UK alone would need an area at least half its size to grow enough crops to meet biofuel demands, leading to extensive deforestation.