When it comes to flying, going green can cost you more. And it will take time for the strategy to take off.
Sustainability was a hot topic this week at the Paris Air Show, the world’s biggest event for the aviation industry, which faces growing pressure to reduce the climate-altering greenhouse gases that planes emit.
Even massive orders at the show got an emissions-cutting twist: Airlines and manufacturers said new planes will be more fuel-efficient than those they replace.
But most of those planes will burn conventional kerosene-based jet fuel. Startups are feverishly working on electric-powered planesbut they won’t spread as quickly as electric vehicles.
“It’s much easier to pack a heavy battery into a vehicle if you don’t have to lift it off the ground,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at New York University.
This means sustainable aviation fuel has become the industry’s best hope for delivering on its promise of net zero emissions. by 2050. Aviation produces 2-3% of global carbon emissions, but its share is expected to increase as travel increases and other industries become greener.
Sustainable fuel, however, only accounts for 0.1% of all jet fuel. Made from sources such as used cooking oil and vegetable waste, SAF can be mixed with conventional jet fuel but costs significantly more.
Suppliers “will be able to sort of set the price,” Molly Wilkinson, vice president of American Airlines, said at the air show. “And we’re concerned that at that point that price will end up being passed on to the passenger in some form of ticket price.”
With such limited supply, critics say airlines are over-promising and exaggerating how quickly they can ramp up the use of SAF. The industry even has skeptics: nearly a third of aviation sustainability leaders in a GE Aerospace survey doubt the industry will meet its net zero goal by 2050.
Delta Air Lines is being sued in US federal court by critics who say the carrier misrepresents itself as the world’s first carbon-neutral airline, and that Delta’s claim rests on carbon offsets that are largely bogus. The Atlanta-based airline says the charges are “without legal basis”.
Across the Atlantic, a consumer group known by its French acronym, BEUC, lodged a complaint this week with the European Union executive, accusing 17 airlines of greenwashing..
The group says airlines are misleading consumers and breaking unfair trade practices rules by encouraging customers to pay extra to help fund the development of SAF and offset future carbon emissions. created by flying.
In one case, the group’s researchers found that Air France charged up to 138 euros ($150) for the green option.
“Sustainable fuels for aviation are indeed the greatest technological potential to decarbonize the aviation sector, but the main problem…is that they are not available,” said Dimitri Vergne, head of policies at BEUC.
“We know that before the end of the next decade – at least – they will not be available in massive quantities” and will not be the main source of fuel for aircraft, Vergne added.
Producers claim that SAF reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80%, compared to regular jet fuel, throughout its life cycle.
Airlines talk about getting greener for years. They have been rattled by the rise of ‘flight shaming’, a movement that encourages people to find less polluting means of transport – or to reduce their journeys altogether.
The issue became urgent this year when European Union negotiators agreed on new rules forcing airlines to use more sustainable fuel. starting in 2025 and increasing sharply in subsequent years.
The United States favors incentives rather than mandates.
Legislation signed last year by President Joe Biden will provide tax breaks for cleaner jet fuel development, but one of the credits will expire in just two years. Wilkinson, the head of American Airlines, said it was too short to attract sustainable fuel producers and the credit should be extended for 10 years or more.
The International Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, estimates that SAF could contribute 65% of the emissions reductions needed for the industry to reach its net zero goal by 2050.
But very few flights are powered by SAF due to limited supply and infrastructure.
Just before the opening of the Paris Air ShowPresident Emmanuel Macron announced that France would contribute 200 million euros ($218 million) to a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) factory to manufacture SAF.
Many airlines have touted investments in SAF producers such as World Energy, which has a plant in Paramount, California, and Neste in Finland.
United Airlines plans to triple its use of SAF this year, to 10 million gallons – but it burned 3.6 billion gallons of fuel last year.
Some see sustainable fuel as a bridge to cleaner technologies, including larger electric planes or hydrogen-powered planes. But having enough power to run a large electric plane would require a fantastic leap forward in battery technology.
Hydrogen has to be refrigerated and stored somewhere — it couldn’t be carried in the wings of today’s airplanes like jet fuel.
“Hydrogen seems like a good idea. The problem is that the more you look into the details, the more you realize that it’s an engineering challenge but also an economic challenge,” said Richard Aboulafia of AeroDynamic Advisory. , an aerospace consultancy, at the Paris Air Show “It’s within the realm of the possible, (but) not for the next few decades.”
Koenig reported from Dallas. AP reporters Jade Le Deley and Tristan Werkmeister at Le Bourget, France, and Kelvin Chan in Toronto contributed.