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One way the sector is looking to replace conventional fossil aviation fuels is by exploring the use of sustainable aviation fuels, or SAFs.

Justin Tallis | Afp | Getty Images

FARNBORO, England. Airline executives at the UK Farnborough International Air Show are betting on the use of so-called sustainable jet fuel to reduce climate impact, saying the technology is already available and could eventually be scaled up to help the industry reach zero emissions. by 2050.

However, activists are calling for them to “become real”, dismissing the plans as “completely unrealistic” under current growth paths. Instead, demand management measures are seen by the aviation industry as the most effective way to reduce climate impacts in the short term.

It comes as leaders from the aerospace and defense industry gather in a heat wave at the Farnborough International Air Show, the UK’s first major air show since the start of the Covid pandemic.

The five-day trade show, which began on Monday, brought thousands of visitors across the south of England to discuss the future of aviation.

Compared to other sectors, aviation contributes relatively little to global greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is recognized as one of the fastest growing – and flights are expected to grow at an alarming rate in the coming decades.

If aviation is to join the landmark Paris Climate Agreement and curb global warming, the industry will need to phase out fossil fuels entirely in the long term.

One way the sector is looking to replace conventional fossil aviation fuels is by exploring the use of sustainable aviation fuels, or SAFs.

Chris Raymond, Boeing’s director of sustainability, believes SAF will be an “essential component” to help the industry achieve zero emissions by mid-century. “This is not a bridge,” Raymond said at a press briefing on Monday. “SAF needed. It’s SAF and all we can do.”

Reflecting on Boeing’s vision for SAF through 2050, Raymond said: “These ways of making this fuel will get better and cleaner as more renewable electricity becomes available. [and] as the source of hydrogen becomes more renewable because we produce it more often through electrolysis and renewable energy networks.”

“It’s a spectrum that’s driving big innovation right now – and that’s all SAF,” Raymond said. “Think of it as the early days of SAF all the way to a hypothetical net [power-to-liquid) SAF, made with nothing but green hydrogen from renewable electricity and direct air carbon capture.”

Not all alternative fuels are created equal

Sustainable aviation fuels, or SAF, are energy sources “made from renewable raw material,” according to aircraft maker Airbus. It says the most common feedstocks “are crops based or used cooking oil and animal fat.”

There are major concerns in some quarters that increased uptake of SAF could, among other things, result in substantial deforestation and create a squeeze on crops crucial to food production.

“The main thing to bear in mind that is not all SAF are created equal, and their sustainability fully depends on the sustainably of the feedstock that they are made from. With SAF, the devil is really in [the details]Matteo Mirolo, an aviation policy officer at Transport & Environment, told CNBC by phone.

“The first thing we’re looking for, and I’m especially thinking about airlines, is recognition that the credibility of their SAF plans depends on making the right choices when it comes to the type of SAF or the type of raw material they’re made from,” Mirolo said.

Earlier this month, European lawmakers narrowly voted to ban the use of a controversial biofuel feedstock from the EU’s environmental mandate for aviation fuel, known as ReFuelEU. The decision was hailed as a positive step towards decarbonizing the sector and increasing confidence in the bloc’s climate plans.

“I believe that we must act as quickly as possible to introduce sustainable aviation fuels now, in order to grow this industry now. This is indeed a very good opportunity to cut carbon emissions at the start of the 30-year tranche we are talking about,” Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said Monday at a panel at the Farnborough International Air Show.

Faury said the initial pivot to sustainable aviation fuels is likely to be based primarily on bio-based aviation fuels, but will eventually be replaced by “more complex” energy-to-liquid fuels or e-fuels.

“Probably in the long term – in many decades – we will find a very streamlined way of sustainable energy, but in the transition period the fastest way is to use SAFs, and they are available now,” Faury said.

Huge emissions growth ‘simply not viable’

Norman Baker, campaign and policy adviser for the Campaign for Better Transport, was unequivocal in his message to airline executives betting that SAF would reach zero emissions by 2050.

“They have to get real,” Baker told CNBC by phone. “I don’t believe SAFs are sustainable. The term is used in the industry in the same way that the tobacco companies used to talk about low-tar cigarettes.”

Campaigners say one of the main problems with using SAF to reduce aviation’s climate impact in the long term is that it allows the industry to continue to grow at a pace inconsistent with the deepening climate crisis.

“Even if alternative fuels do develop as planned, and even if prices fall and availability increases, the idea that they will be available to allow the industry to continue on its current growth path is completely unrealistic,” Alethea Warrington, campaign activist. at the climate charity Maybe, told CNBC by phone.

“It just doesn’t make sense to have a huge increase in emissions now and hope you can magically fix it in a couple of decades,” Warrington said. “It just won’t work.”

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