Is this the key to one day making air transport environmentally sustainable?


Gideon Forman has sworn to stop stealing.

“I’ve read so much about the climate emergency, and I really want to take it seriously,” he says.

« So I asked myself, ‘What can I do in my own life that will be up to the challenge?' »

Over the years, Forman, 60, a political analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, has flown for business and pleasure, traveling to Israel, South Africa and Europe. In 2019, he said enough was enough.

“It’s something I can do in my everyday life to make a difference,” he says.

Forman is one of a small but growing number of climate-conscious people who avoid flying because of the huge amount of greenhouse gases it produces.

A single ticket on a round-trip flight between Toronto and Paris, for example, produces three times more carbon than it takes to heat an average Ontario household with natural gas all winter long.

Collectively, although aviation only produces about 3% of Canada’s annual carbon emissions, it is one of the few sectors (along with oil and gas extraction) where emissions are going in the wrong direction. .

The carbon emitted by domestic and international flights has increased by 25% since 2012, when the federal government released its « Action Plan » to reduce emissions from aviation.

Since then, the only climate commitment Canada has made on aviation is that it will be net zero by 2050, when the whole country is supposed to be too.

To achieve this, airlines and the government are banking on Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), which promise to reduce aircraft emissions by up to 80%.

SAF is jet fuel derived from recycled cooking oils, forestry by-products and even waste materials, refined until it is chemically identical to jet fuel made from petroleum. This means it is a drop-in solution that does not require any modifications to existing jet engines or airline infrastructure.

This simplicity generated a lot of enthusiasm. But critics say SAF is a too-little-too-late fix that masks the only surefire way to reduce aviation emissions – by reducing the number of flights that take off each day.

For now, SAF remains more of a curiosity than a real option for travellers.

Last April, on Earth Day, Air Canada operated four commercial flights between San Francisco and major Canadian cities powered by SAF. In June, WestJet flew its first commercial flight with SAF – a coordinated technology demonstration with other airlines at the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles.

Unlike biofuels such as ethanol, which are made from crops that could otherwise produce food, SAFs are produced from wastes and by-products.

« Used cooking oil was thrown down the drain, » says Theodore Rolfvondenbaumen, a spokesman for Neste, a Finnish oil and gas company that switched to making sustainable fuels in the 1990s.

Now, Neste collects this oil from more than 55,000 restaurants before filtering and refining it. The resulting fuel can turn into diesel for trucks or SAF, which is used by musical groups such as Coldplay to reduce the carbon footprint of their concert tours.

Yes, burning SAF still produces carbon emissions, says Rolfvondenbaumen, but the difference between it and fossil fuels comes when you look at the carbon life cycle in each fuel. Kerosene made from petroleum takes carbon that has been sequestered underground for millions of years and releases it into the atmosphere. SAFs take carbon that was already in the atmosphere before it was briefly sequestered by plants (like corn, canola, and sunflower that cooking oil is made from) and release it into the air.

“Instead of digging up carbon, we use carbon that was already in the atmosphere,” says Rolfvondenbaumen.

The only additional emissions come from the refining process, he says, which accounts for up to 20-30% of the flight’s total emissions.

Currently producing nearly 130 million liters of SAF, Neste plans to grow to 2.3 billion liters by the end of next year.

This type of exponential growth is what airlines rely on. The International Air Transport Association, which represents virtually every airline in the world, pledged last year to reach net zero by 2050. Two-thirds of those reductions are expected to come from SAF.

Air Canada is investing $50 million in SAFs, which will replace 1% of its fuel by 2025. The airline is committed to a climate action plan to reduce emissions by 20% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

WestJet calls SAF a “great opportunity” and is actively seeking partnerships to expand production in Canada.

« This is in our opinion the best large-scale, short-term decarbonization option for the industry, » said Gareth Lewis, sustainability director at WestJet.

But making the flight climate-friendly will not be easy.

“Decarbonizing aviation is perhaps the toughest engineering challenge anyone faces,” says Jim Harris, partner at international consultancy group Bain & Company, in a video.

Although there are plans to develop hydrogen and electric aircraft, these technologies are still being explored and will likely only work on short- and medium-haul flights, leaving SAFs as the only currently viable option.

« The challenge is that there just isn’t enough supply available, » Harris says.

SAF production accounts for only about 1% of global jet fuel demand, according to Bain, and scaling up cannot happen quickly enough. Production will only reach 18% of demand by 2040, according to projections by the International Energy Agency.

To make up for this shortfall, says Bain, SAFs from alternative sources must be developed – from municipal waste and biomass – and production will need to be increased 400-fold.

Currently, there is no production of SAF in Canada, making it difficult for Canadian airlines to source it. And then there’s the cost: SAFs can be two to eight times more expensive than conventional jet fuel.

Additionally, current safety regulations limit SAFs to 50% of the existing aircraft fuel mix. While future jets will be able to handle 100% SAF, regulations severely limit the emissions reductions achievable in coming years.

“It’s going to take a huge amount of capital to build the infrastructure and the green renewable energy to power that infrastructure,” Harris said.

That’s why environmental groups are hesitant to tout SAFs as a panacea for flying.

« There won’t be enough SAF to decarbonize the aviation industry, » said Thomas Gelin of Greenpeace Germany. « That doesn’t solve the problem at all. »

« The reason airlines are playing this is to counter the idea that we need to reduce the number of flights. »

The current growth in flights does not mean that more people are flying, just that those who are flying are flying more. According to a 2019 academic study, 1% of the population is responsible for more than half of global aviation emissions, while almost 90% of the world’s population does not fly at all.

Despite being responsible for the growth in emissions, European airlines have no plan to meet the 2030 Paris Agreement emissions reduction targets, Greenpeace said. Instead, airlines benefit from free pollution permits for the European carbon credit market.

In Europe, Greenpeace is calling for a ban on short-haul flights that can reasonably be replaced by train journeys of six hours or less.

Back in Canada, more than 30 health and environment groups are also urging the federal government to act faster to reduce emissions from the aviation industry.

In an open letter sent to Transport Minister Omar Alghabra last month, the groups, which include the Canadian Public Health Association, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario and the David Suzuki Foundation, said: » Canada is lagging behind other countries – and its own airlines – in not committing to reducing aviation emissions in the near term.

Citing Denmark, which has pledged to make all domestic flights fossil-free by 2030, and Air Canada’s 2030 commitment, the letter urges Ottawa to implement binding emissions reduction targets. at least 30% by 2030.

Transport Canada is set to release its new aviation emissions reduction action plan in the coming months.

Alghabra declined a request for an interview but said through a spokesperson that the government is committed « to promoting the development of sustainable aviation fuel, through international collaboration ».

Now that he’s given up flying, Forman says SAF won’t make him reconsider.

“We are a long way from truly having zero-emission flights,” he said.

But that shouldn’t stop young people from getting out and seeing the world.

« I don’t judge anyone else, » he said. “I am far from perfect.

“Do your best. Fly less if you can. Be aware of that.”


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