“The Jet Zero strategy was designed to future-proof aviation so passengers can look forward to worry-free travel.”
That’s the goal of Grant Shapps and the Department of Transport’s new plan, announced this week, to achieve zero-emission air travel by 2050. This sounds great for travelers and has a catchy name, but is it too good to be true?
Research shared with Sky News by a group led by the University of Cambridge, Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA), shows the scale of the challenge facing government and the global aviation industry.
Right now we’re burning 10 tons of kerosene every second – that’s an Olympic-size swimming pool every three minutes. To replace this with sustainable aviation fuel, current production would have to be increased 1,000 times.
We’ll get to the other obstacles — land use, electricity consumption, new planes, and the money — later.
There are six main targets designed to ensure the government’s ambitious target for 2050 is met. There are two we’ll take a closer look at, but click on the others for a quick rundown of what they entail.
- Improving the efficiency of aircraft
- Encouraging customers to make green choices
- Capture and offset carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions
- Dealing with other non-CO2 warming effects of flying
- Use of more sustainable fuels
- Emission-free flight
We will take a closer look at points 5 and 6, they involve either the development of new fuels or new aircraft.
The industry is currently attempting to scale up production of “Sustainable Aviation Fuels,” which are drop-in replacements for fossil kerosene. These fuels include both biofuels produced from either plant or waste biomass streams; and “synthetic” jet fuels, produced from electricity used to make hydrogen from water and carbon dioxide from the air.
In terms of new aircraft, manufacturers are involved in the development of two new types of aircraft – hydrogen-powered and battery-powered. Current battery-powered aircraft can only fly a few hundred miles, but hydrogen-powered aircraft are attractive because they can fly any range that jet-fueled aircraft can currently fly.
One of the tools developed by the AIA is called the Journey Impact Simulator. It provides detailed estimates of the various impacts that different fuels would have on things like CO2 emissions, land use, electricity requirements and the monetary cost of flying in the future.
Drawing on technical data from a wide range of industries, the tool was developed by a team of over 60 experts from around the world, led by the University of Cambridge. It hasn’t launched yet, but they shared some results with us, looking at a flight from London Heathrow to JFK in New York in 2035.
This year is significant because it has reached about half of the 2050 target and Airbus announces that they will launch a hydrogen-powered aircraft.
After examining thousands of different technologies, fuels and routes, considering all elements involved in production, the AIA identified green hydrogen and synthetic fuels as the top two options to replace kerosene.
They should be available on a significant scale by 2035 and are also two of the methods the government is most interested in and willing to invest in.
First, the benefits of moving away from fossil jet fuel in terms of climate impact are clear.
The alternative fuels do not completely eliminate the impact on the climate, but the reductions are significant. Currently, the climate impact per passenger of a flight from London to New York would be equivalent to 21% of the carbon footprint of an entire UK household for one year. This would fall by more than half, to 9% for liquid hydrogen and 10% for synthetic kerosene.
The remaining climate impact is mainly caused by non-CO2 effects such as contrails. The only net CO2 emissions from the new fuels come from building the equipment needed to make the fuel – wind turbines, nuclear power plants, electrolysers and airplanes.
But producing these new fuels is incredibly energy intensive.
Producing enough synthetic fuel to fly from London to New York would use 1.4 times the energy used by a UK household in a year. And that for every passenger. In the case of hydrogen, it would be around 80% of an annual household electricity budget.
To power all current aircraft on synthetic fuels, 40% of the world’s electricity generation or all of the world’s low-carbon renewable and nuclear energy sources would have to be used for air travel alone.
This is partly because the amount of kerosene required is so large – and partly because making kerosene from air and water is extremely power intensive.
It’s also expensive. The tool predicts that the cost of producing synthetic kerosene could double the ticket price. By 2035, in the best-case scenario, with inexpensive green hydrogen and if hyper-efficient novel engine technologies can be developed that take advantage of liquid hydrogen, the cost of refueling a jet-fuel airplane and a hydrogen airplane could be similar.
The price could fall due to efficiency gains and falling renewable energy prices, but even in the AIA’s absolute best-case scenario, they predict the use of synthetic kerosene will result in a 50 percent increase in the ticket price.
The options we have seen are the ones with the lowest climate impact. Another option that would not reduce climate impact as much, but is cheaper and more rapidly scalable, is biofuels – fuels made from plants.
But these are incredibly land intensive. It would take a forest half the size of Europe to produce enough fuel from wood to meet today’s annual kerosene consumption.
Some biofuels can be made from crops – but replacing our current global appetite for jet fuel with crops would add 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day to every person on the planet. Additional crop growth of this magnitude would compete with food production and water use, again just to fund air travel.
What are the solutions?
The AIA says: “It’s really important to look at the holistic system – from resource requirements to all the different climate impacts. In order to keep flying, we have to work fast. Our investment and policy decisions must be based on an understanding of the entire aviation sector.”
For some experts, it all boils down to something very simple: people fly less.
Leo Murray, director of innovations at Climate Action Campaign Group Possible, says the plans show “the government has downplayed the scale of the challenge”.
Research by Possible shows that under successive governments, the airline industry has met just one of its goals set since 2000.
“The targets are voluntary and there are no consequences if they are not met because they do not expect them to be met. Nobody actually anticipates these technological improvements, if they did they would have no problem putting in place a plan B that holds the industry accountable.
“Currently there is no tax on kerosene or plane tickets, they fall in the same category as essentials like wheelchairs and baby clothes. Even tampons are just beginning to fall into this category. Check out the taxes we pay for other modes of transportation.
“It’s difficult for politicians to fall back on that and make air travel more expensive, but ordinary travelers who have one or two family vacations a year are not the problem. We don’t want these trips, which are sacrosanct in British culture. be inaccessible to people on low incomes.
“Business travel isn’t even the issue, that’s one in ten flights and it’s been declining since COVID. The problem is that 15% of the top earners take 70% of all flights on vacation. We can charge these people with a frequent flyer levy and try to reduce the overall demand for air travel.
“We simply have to take less air travel. At this point in time, we have no plans to meet our climate commitments.”
A DfT spokesman said: “We are committed to decarbonising transport, not by discouraging people from doing things, but by helping people do the same things differently and in a more sustainable way.
“Our analysis suggests that the aviation sector can achieve Jet Zero without direct government intervention to limit air travel growth, while achieving net zero targets by focusing on new fuels and technologies, to mitigate the impact on sustainability in general.”
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AIA’s Journey Impact Simulator, one of the tools used in this article, will be launched publicly later this year. Their resource-climate comparison tool, RECCE, compares various fuels and technologies in 2035 in terms of their climate impacts and required global resource consumption and costs, live on the AIA’s website.
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