Why is an airline’s climate change plan leaving behind cars and electric vehicles?

An American Airlines plane has landed at La Guardia International Airport in New York.

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

In 1928, one person crossed the Atlantic Ocean; In 2018, 4.3 billion passenger trips were recorded. While some people managed to get away with it even before Covid—about half of Americans don’t fly at all, according to a Gallup poll—the rest of the U.S. population flies enough to average two flights a year.

It takes a lot of energy to get people into the air, and because energy production comes at an environmental cost, air transportation is a significant carbon emitter and poses a unique challenge compared to other modes of transportation when it comes to climate change. . Unlike innovations in electric cars, boats, and trains—the extra mass required to run on electricity isn’t an insurmountable engineering challenge, and extension cords aren’t 30,000 feet long—burning fuel remains, at least, the only way to fly. for longer flights. Eighty percent of emissions are from flights that are approximately 1,000 miles or longer and have no available alternative fuel.

Every individual has a role to play in reducing emissions. The average American is responsible for about 15 metric tons of CO2 per year, and more than a third of Americans say they would pay a little extra on their airline tickets for a carbon offset. The rich and famous have a bigger carbon footprint. Taylor Swift’s very harmful private jet produces about 8,000 metric tons of CO2 per year. But Taylor has nothing on the airline industry, which emits a billion metric tons of CO2 annually. If the united air industry were a country, it would have more CO2 emissions than Germany in addition to having a killer beech region.

The industry, however, emphasizes its small carbon footprint compared to other industries.

US carriers, in particular, account for “just 2 percent” of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, while carrying more than 2 million passengers and 68,000 tons of cargo a day, according to the trade group Airlines for America. The airline industry has become more efficient in recent decades, with US airlines increasing their fuel efficiency (on a revenue ton-mile basis) by more than 135% between 1978 and 2021. a growing problem according to climate analysts who study the aviation sector.

Covid has slowed air travel, but it is still expected to triple

Video conferencing may replace some of the business travel, but as the aviation sector takes off, climate analysts say a tripling of global air travel in the coming decades — even as predicted before Covid — is still a safe bet. Passenger travel will grow more slowly, but analysts note that aviation is also used for cargo, which is not the case for business class. This is cause for serious concern about aviation’s carbon reduction plans. Climate analysts say the industry should focus on keeping its emissions share low rather than seeing its current share as a reason to act more deliberately.

Aviation is still in its testing days in the power generation sector, where significant investment has already been made in competitive renewables compared to cars and traditional sources, where electric vehicles have made decades of progress. new fuel technology. Electric batteries play a role, at best, on shorter, regional routes and urban journeys, and airlines are making these investments.

Some critics say the aviation industry has been too slow to seek climate solutions, but acknowledge that aviation is a challenging sector when it comes to net zero goals because of its unique safety and regulatory requirements. The pandemic hasn’t helped aviation, and even its critics say it would be unrealistic to expect a surge in investment in tech startups over the past few years, given more pressing financial problems. Airlines have completed test flights with sustainable jet fuel, and contracts with sustainable jet fuel manufacturers have begun to accrue.

Travelers go through security at San Francisco International Airport during the start of the long July 4th holiday weekend on June 30, 2022 in San Francisco, California.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

American Airlines signed a deal over the summer with biofuel company Gevo to buy 500 million gallons of sustainable airline fuel (SAF) over five years as part of America’s net zero carbon directive. It describes its climate targets as “aggressive”, including achieving net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. American is the first airline and the only US airline to receive approval from the Science-Based Targets initiative for its interim global GHG emissions reduction targets. the airline will report using more than 1 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel in 2021.

Gevo’s low or zero carbon SAF manufacturing process begins on the farm where the raw materials are grown. The company partners with farms that use regenerative agriculture techniques that store carbon in the soil. These farms also use precision application of chemicals and fertilizers to reduce their carbon footprint in the process.

The plants Gevo is designing will take that feedstock (ie, field corn) and turn it into ethanol. From the ethanol, Gevo is then converted into a product that is chemically identical to standard aviation fuel. The difference between standard aviation fuel and Gevo’s SAF is the elimination of fossil fuels used in the production process for heat, electricity or whatever power is needed.

Instead, Gevo combines wind, solar, hydrogen, biogas and other renewable energy sources to eliminate fossil fuels from the process. According to John Richardson, director of investor relations at Gevo, this would provide an alternative fuel for aviation needs that is net zero or even net negative in terms of carbon intensity if carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) is integrated. .

SAFs are chemically indistinguishable from standard aviation fuel – but their production process is significantly different (and greener) than conventional fuels – although unlike EVs in the automotive sector, there is much debate about whether SAF approaches will be the ultimate winner and what trade-offs are needed . will be done today to support existing technologies in development.

Gevo’s approach to feedstocks is a good example.

The feedstocks that go into sustainable aviation fuels today are not produced anywhere near as much as global jet fuel, and this scale challenge will remain for years as competing technology approaches are tested by the aviation industry. The use of raw materials, especially in food production, may be a bigger problem in terms of optics in the future.

Several climate analysts told CNBC they are concerned about the overemphasis on scaling up feedstock-based sustainable jet fuel at a time when global food security concerns are growing in a world facing major impacts of climate change on agriculture. Gevo emphasizes that it uses residual starches from “inedible field corn” as raw materials, which are abundant in supply and low in nutritional value.

Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury made the point on a panel at Britain’s Farnborough International Airshow – a five-day exhibition where executives and key figures gather to discuss the future of air travel: “Probably in the long term – many decades – we will find a very optimized way of sustainable energy. , but the fast way to switch is to use SAF and they are available now,” he said.

Against the standards of its industry, America remains a leader in carbon reduction efforts. American received a CDP Climate Change score of “A–” in 2021 – the highest score among North American airlines and one of only two airlines globally to achieve this high score.

“We understand that climate change is urgent and inevitable,” said Jill Blickstein, vice president of sustainability at American Airlines. “As the world’s largest airline, American is committed to developing the tools necessary to decarbonize our operations.”

In addition to Gevo, it has invested in Bill Gates’ ‘Big Energy Catalyst,’ which is focused on advancing technologies that will help meet all of our ambitious sustainability goals,” Blickstein said.

Decarbonizing airplanes gets support from Biden

There are many technological approaches to sustainable aviation fuels that can decarbonize aircraft without prolonging the use and dependence on existing fossil fuels and green hydrogen technology.

As more investor money is expected to flow into green hydrogen as a result of the IRA, climate analysts describe the tax credits as a major driver for sustainable aviation fuels, as science aside, they have been the biggest challenge to scaling up operations and SAF production. financial incentive. Green hydrogen approaches aim to remove C02 from the air and mix it with green hydrogen into a form of kerosene that is competitive with conventional jet fuel. In February 2021, KLM flew for the first time from Amsterdam to Madrid a Boeing 737 passenger jet fueled with 500 liters of synthetic kerosene from energy giant Shell, mixed with conventional jet fuel.

Recently announced deals with space startups have worked with major air carriers before the IRA, including Alaska Airlines and Twelve, which recently contracted with Microsoft for its approach to creating sustainable fuel using carbon from air, water. and renewable energy. Alaska, which has been using SAF blends on special routes since 2011, noted that there is still a long way to go: less than 1% of the total fuel currently available is SAF, and its costs are three to five times higher than conventional jet fuel.

Delta Air Lines recently signed the largest U.S. aviation contract ever for green hydrogen-produced fuels with Louisiana-based DG Fuels, which uses waste CO2 as feedstock, and announced that existing global SAF supplies could power a fleet the size of Delta for a day.

For now, EVs are very much along the innovation curve, with many more years of testing and government policy to support the transformational growth of the transport sector.

But not everyone sees SAFs as a solution, especially given the growth trends in the industry. At the recent Farnborough International Air Show, campaigners and climate activists challenged the industry’s emphasis on SAFs, calling on them to “get real” and offer more significant climate solutions. Instead of SAFs, slower growth and less travel and fewer flights are proposed to solve the problem, perhaps by reducing domestic flights and encouraging and improving rail travel.

Analysts warn that all efforts toward a carbon-free future for aviation should not eliminate even more important substitutes for air travel, such as high-speed rail. But the goal for aviation should be the same as for other sectors, and its emissions should peak as soon as possible. And the obvious choice today is that electric remains on the aviation fuel path, as opposed to automobiles, where the future is. Whichever form of fuel production produces the least emissions with the greatest benefits and savings will win, and that’s what no player in aviation knows for sure today. Climate analysts expect it will take at least five to ten years for the most effective solutions to emerge.

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