Virgin Atlantic will operate the world’s first net zero transatlantic flight in 2023. It will be a milestone in the history of the aviation industry.
The first ever all-green transatlantic flight takes off in the UK next year. This is evidenced in a press release from the British Ministry of Transport.
Britain’s second largest carrier, Virgin Atlantic Airways, will at the end of 2023 fly across the Atlantic exclusively using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
The climate-neutral flight is supported by the British government. The government has set aside an amount of £1 million for the project.
Virgin Atlantic will fly from Heathrow airport in London to JFK airport in New York. However, there will be no fare-paying passengers on board.
It is a Boeing 787 aircraft with the Rolls-Royce engines of the Trent 1000 type that gets the honor of flying the route.
The Ministry of Transport claims in the press release that Virgin Atlantic’s climate-neutral flight marks an important historic milestone for the entire aviation industry in its journey towards net zero emissions.
Hopefully the project can demonstrate that air travel can be operated only using sustainable aviation fuel, which emits less CO2.
But how green is a flight with the sustainable aviation fuel, SAF, really?
What is SAF?
SAF is made from raw materials, primarily used cooking oil, plant oils, agricultural and forestry residues as well as household waste, such as packaging, food scraps and textiles to name a few.
However, SAF still releases carbon emissions when burned.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), SAF can reduce CO2 emissions by around 70-80 percent over the lifecycle of the fuel compared to conventional fossil jet fuel.
Today, commercial aircraft can use the sustainable aviation fuel, SAF, if it is blended – in a ratio of 50 percent – with traditional jet fuel.
The use of 100 percent SAF on flights combined with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through the purchase of so-called climate credits will make aviation climate neutral.
Did you know that climate credits allow the buyer to emit CO2, as the credit ensures to neutralize the emission somewhere else?
International collaboration is critical for industrial decarbonization
The UK’s secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy, Grant Shapps, promised to speed up testing and approvals of the technology behind SAF.
“This ground-breaking net-zero flight, a world first, will demonstrate the critical role that sustainable jet fuel can play in the decarbonisation of aviation in line with our ambitious net-zero goals.”
Thus Shapps spoke about Virgin Atlantic’s upcoming green flight route.
Virgin Atlantic’s first flight route in 1984 flew from London Gatwick Airport to New York’s Newark Airport. Today, the route remains one of the company’s most popular routes.
Aviation is one of the most difficult sectors to decarbonise. Without swift cooperation it could become one of the world’s most polluting industries by 2050.
Virgin Atlantic’s CEO, Shai Weiss, acknowledges the importance of the project in the press release. According to Weiss, the project aims to spread and improve sustainable jet fuel:
“This challenge recognizes the critical role that SAF has to play in decarbonizing aviation and the urgent collective action needed to scale production and use of SAF globally.”
Weiss further explains in the announcement that collaboration across and between industry is of crucial importance if we are to achieve our shared ambition of net zero by 2050.
Britain’s transport minister, Mark Harper, is sure that Virgin Atlantic’s green flight between London and New York will show the world how much can be achieved together.
“For decades, flights from London to New York have symbolized aviation’s ability to connect people and drive international progress. It’s now going to be at the forefront of cutting carbon emissions from flying.”
How green are SAF?
However, sustainable aviation fuels are not a miracle solution in the fight against emissions.
SAF emits at least as much CO2 as kerosene. Greenhouse gas savings are only achieved in the production phase.
But the production phase can also be harmful to the environment.
If companies grow new crops (i.e. crops that do not originate from recycling) to compensate for emissions, these plantations can lead to deforestation and reduced biodiversity.
Using new crops is very harmful. Plantations of crops such as palm oil, rapeseed or soy are a leading driver of deforestation.
Activists have accused the proponents of SAF of using the technology to greenwash an otherwise polluting industry.
The British climate consultancy, Element Energy, has criticized the British government for its unrealistic plan for a climate-neutral aviation industry.
In a report published earlier this year, Element Energy accused the government of relying on unproven technology. They requested them to stop planned airport extensions at Gatwick Airport in West Sussex and Luton Airport in Bedforshire.
Environmentally-minded travelers are gradually more turning to other forms of transport, in particular train travel.
How extensive is the use of SAF?
Grobally, aviation accounts for around 2 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions.
A study from Lund University in Sweden indicated that by avoiding just one transatlantic flight, you save eight times more greenhouse gas emissions per year than what you would otherwise do with recycling.
But IATA – whose members account for over 80 percent of the world’s air traffic – plans to reach net zero by 2050.
SAF is often touted as the best solution for decarbonisation.
Oneworld – which is the world’s third largest alliance of airlines after Star Alliance and SkyTeam with members such as British Airways, American Airlines and Finnair – has pledged to use 10 percent SAF on all its flights by 2030.
The European Commission’s “ReFuelEU” initiative proposed requiring fuel suppliers to use 2 percent SAF from 2025 with a gradual increase to 63 percent by 2050.
Much more to do
The current use of SAF remains extremely low.
In 2019, SAF accounted for only 0.1 percent of all jet fuel used worldwide.
It is difficult to upgrade SAF as it is more than twice as expensive as normal fuel.
The UK government has asked the aviation industry to locate at least three commercial SAF production facilities in the UK by 2025. It has also pledged £180m to the SAF industry.
SAF will not only be key to the decarbonisation of aviation, but it could create a industry with an annual turnover of £2.4 billion by 2040 as well as support up to 5,200 UK jobs by 2035.