United Airlines flew a passenger plane from Chicago to Washington on December 1, using only fuel made from cooking oil, agricultural waste, and other materials.
The airline described it as the first fully-loaded passenger flight that runs on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). It was United’s latest attempt at demonstrating its climate credentials. Scott Kirby, Uniteds CEO, called it It is a significant milestonefor industry efforts to decarbonize.
Critics say it was another attempt at making sustainable aviation seem closer than it actually is. It also gives the impression that people can fly guilt-free. There are huge obstacles to scaling up SAF as the global supply is still very limited. United Airlines continues to grow despite these challenges. It plans to increase flight numbers, add new routes, and invest in supersonic aviation.
United Airlines hopes to see a rapid recovery when Covid restrictions are lifted and the world opens up again. The US industry is already anticipating Pre-pandemic levelsDespite the Omicron variant’s rise, there will be plenty of holidaymakers this holiday season. It is also being urged to reduce its carbon footprint. Although aviation contributes about 2.5% to global emissions, the UN has projected that carbon dioxide emissions will be around 3%.Could triple by 2050.
Although airlines have been slow in making net zero commitments, the industry is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Technologies to decarbonize flying are still a long way off scaling but some are beginning to make pledges.
United has been determined to be at the forefront of the industry’s efforts. United promised to be 100% green by 2050, a commitment to go net zero by 2020 without the use carbon offsets. These are widely used by the rest the industry. Kirby, who called climate change The biggest issueFaced with our generation, offsets have been criticized as a Fig leaf.
Instead, we should be focusing our dollars, time, and commitment on solutions that actually reduce the emissions from flying, said Lauren Riley (Managing Director for Global Environmental Affairs and Sustainability at United).
The airline has made large investments in sustainable aviation fuels. Fulcrum Bioenergy, which makes jet fuel out of household garbage, was one of these investments. Emissions can be reduced with SAFs Up to 80% According to IATA, it is cheaper than conventional fuel over the course of a given lifecycle.
United is also funding projects that extract carbon directly from air. Riley said that direct air capture will play an important role. United plans to invest in the Project 1PointFiveRiley, who is building a Texas-based direct air capture plant, said, She said that one of these plants can remove as much CO2 from as 40m trees.
These technologies will need to be scaled up, but that is not the end of the problems.
Direct air capture isn’t yet operational at the required scale. Globally, there are only 19 DAC plants that collectively remove approximately 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide. 100,000 tons of CO2Annually, a long distance from the 85m The IEA estimates that there are 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. This is part of the measures to limit global warming to 1.5C by 2030.
There are still limited supplies of sustainable fuels. SAF makes up less than 0.1% worldwide of aviation fuel. It costs three to four-times more than conventional fuel. Riley admitted that United uses very little SAF at the moment. In a typical pre-pandemic years, the airline uses about 4bngallons of fuel. Of that fuel, only 1m Gallons is SAF. Riley said that we have the greatest supply, so that’s just bananas.
The biggest challenge in scaling up SAF is finding the right feedstocks. Feedstocks that do not cause environmental damage are key. Although this is possible for bio-based fuels, it is not always feasible to use cooking oils or agricultural waste. However, it is possible to keep the waste from going to landfill or being left to rot. Growing crops to make fuel can lead to problems in land clearing, deforestation, and agricultural pollution. This could also impact on food production.
Even though there are plenty of sources for synthetic fuels, such as hydrogen made from recycled carbon and hydrogen produced by renewable energy, it is still very expensive and will require large amounts of clean electricity.
According to Dan Rutherford, director of the International Council on Clean Transportations aviation programs, SAFs have been discussed by airlines since at least 2009. These things are not scaling, as the history is clear. He stated that SAF mandates are being examined by US and EU governments. However, he also said that take-up isn’t going to be as quick as airlines think.
United’s strategy is to increase flying. It has increased the Number of daily flightsIt was announced in London and October There are many new routesYou can also fly to Amman, Jordan, or Tenerife in Canary Islands.
The airline’s most significant move, and according to some experts, its leap into supersonic travel is perhaps the most surprising. United announced a deal in June with Boom Supersonic, based in Denver. Spend an estimated $3bn on 15 Overtures Booms supersonic passenger jets.
Both companies claim that supersonic flight is compatible with net zero commitments. Riley stated that the supersonic jets will run on 100% SAF. Boom Supersonic spokesmen said they will be net zero-carbon and that they were optimistic about SAF availability by 2029, when Overture will be able to transport passengers.
Despite this confidence there are still questions. Where will this fuel come from?From and what it would mean to decarbonize the rest. Supersonic jets are capable of burning Five to seven timesMore fuel than traditional aircraft. Boom said that it was too soon to estimate how much SAF the Overtures will use, but stated that fuel efficiency is a top concern.
Riley stated that we must recognize that innovation will continue. However, it is also crucial that we are committed and able to sustain all of these innovative ideas.
Experts remain skeptical. Cait Hewitt (policy director, UK non-profit The Aviation Environment Federation) stated that the use of these fuels in supersonic aircraft would be a crazy use for scarce resource.
Rutherford said that Uniteds bet in supersonics is completely baffled to me as to why you would make pro-climate commitments. [and]On the other hand, sign up for an aircraft that we know will be at least five-fold more carbon intensive than subsonic aircraft. His calculations show that Uniteds would be able to operate 15 supersonic aircraft for two days using 1m gallons per year of SAF.
Experts believe that reducing flying is the only way to net zero, especially considering the emissions from industry growth. OutpacedThose who are saved by efficiency measures or other climate policies.
The flight shame movement has become more mainstream in recent years, making frequent flying less acceptable. One airline tried to make flying less important in its marketing strategy. KLM ran a campaign in 2019 encouraging people not to fly.
Riley responded that flying less is part of United’s vision for sustainable flying. We are working towards that.
Hewitt says that it is unlikely that zero emissions commercial flight will be possible anytime soon. She said that we need to reduce aviation demand because of how far we have come in decarbonizing flying.