Analysis: Environmental observers question benefits of SAF

Campaigners speak out as Virgin Atlantic praised for transatlantic ‘first’. Ian Taylor reports

Virgin Atlantic’s operation of a flight from Heathrow to New York using 100% ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ (SAF) on Tuesday drew congratulations from across the industry and government.

But environmental campaigners were less impressed, including those who work in industry advisory roles.

Cait Hewitt, policy director of the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) which sits on the advisory board of the Sustainable Aviation coalition, questioned whether the fuel powering the Virgin Atlantic flight should even be termed ‘sustainable’.

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She said: “Even 100% SAF will reduce emissions by zero per cent. Any savings are net. The aviation industry and government are big on claims for SAF, but official studies are more conservative and scientists are sceptical. The hype isn’t matched by official forecasts.

“We’ve allowed the industry to have us refer to everything other than kerosene as SAF and that is problematic. We should ask of every alternative fuel, is this sustainable?”

Hewitt argued the excitement around the 100% SAF flight “risks hushing up the scale of the challenge of decarbonising aviation” and suggested the focus on SAF means “all other options get pushed to the back of people’s minds”.

“The industry would be better looking at producing fuels from atmospheric carbon,” she said. “The industry implies the only challenge is that someone needs to produce this fuel. But it can’t be scaled up.”

Matt Finch, UK policy manager at sister campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E), noted the fuel for the flight was produced from waste including used cooking oil and said: “We already use more cooking oil than is produced in the UK.”

He warned the use of biodiesel SAF in aircraft would “displace biodiesel used on the roads” without bringing an overall reduction in emissions, while biowaste produced from unrecyclable plastics and municipal solid waste would suffer declining feedstocks. Finch noted: “Half of black bin waste is to disappear by 2035. Plastic waste is to reduce, so we’ll not be producing municipal solid waste.

“Will there be feedstocks for SAF? We think there will be excess renewable energy by 2035, but we’re electrifying heating, we’re electrifying transport. What will the future aviation feedstocks be?”

He pointed out: “The EU recently published its SAF mandate, [but] there is not enough SAF production in the EU to meet it.”

The government’s Jet Zero Strategy commits it to having five SAF plants under construction in the UK by 2025. Finch said: “I suspect none will be in construction by the beginning of 2025.” He suggested: “We might only be able to support two SAF plants.”

Helena Bennett, head of policy at the Green Alliance, suggested: “The constraints on supply [for SAF] are much harder to overcome than any of us thought and they risk taking energy from elsewhere.”

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