By Exequiel Sanhueza
Since the agricultural revolution twelve thousand years ago and then from the first industrial revolutions, all societies have required energy to be able to live and have obtained it from the beginning, by using our muscles and we discovered fire. Later we learned to use coal and oil to promote industrial development and then came the use of electrical and nuclear energy, irremediably depleting the non-renewable resources of our planet.
The footprint that human beings have left on the planet has been deep and has covered our sky with harmful greenhouse gases (GHG) and today we observe that Mother Nature is responding fiercely, sending us unusual heat waves, melting ice, floods, extreme droughts and turbulence in the atmosphere never experienced before, in addition to more severe hurricanes. All this has caused the dry areas to become drier and the humid areas to become more humid. The increased humidity in the planet’s atmosphere, which is also warming, can lead to more intense snowfall during the winter. This footprint of the sapiens has meant enormous damage to our biosphere. So much that, at present, about 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere annually.
This has occurred even before 1892 when the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright developed a precarious aircraft that flew for the first time on Thursday, December 17, 1903 on the plains of Kill Devil near Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, the starting point of aviation. Surely, the Wright brothers never imagined the importance of their action and how fast aviation would evolve, which from that moment became factors of an enormous economic and social growth, worldwide. Nor did the Wright brothers imagine that the small engine of their plane of only 12 horsepower, powered by fuel obtained from non-renewable resources, would be a great headache for humanity. The foregoing, because the fuel burned by the engines of modern kerosene-powered aircraft, also obtained from non-renewable resources, would be the cause of 4.5% of the total greenhouse gases (GHG). This is a product of the combustion of aviation fuel, which releases tons of nitric dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and other particles into the atmosphere that all help increase the greenhouse effect and, as a consequence, global warming that leads to worrying climate change.
There is no doubt that the aeronautical industry is the area that has allocated the most resources to research and development of means that help decarbonization, achieving concrete results by finding new and lighter materials, designing electric and hydrogen engines, more aerodynamic aircraft and new fuels, all to contribute to the decarbonization of the atmosphere. This process that is aimes at the elimination of the consumption of fossil fuels that have carbon in their molecular structure, seeks reducing emissions and thus comply with with the Paris EnvironmentalAgreement signed by 193 countries and which entered into force on November 4, 2016.
It is necessary to remember that the objective of the aforementioned agreement is to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the increase in global temperature in this century to 2°C and strive to limit this increase to even just 1.5 °C.
However, despite all the concrete efforts that the industry has been developing that those of us who work in this sector can give proof, a Greenpeace CEE report concluded that “European airlines do not take sufficient measures to combat their impact on climate change. Why? Because they are based on false or ineffective solutions to create the myth that aviation is ecological, despite the fact that the plane is, by far, the most polluting means of transport per passenger/kilometer”.
Greenpeace proposes to reduce the number of aircraft in the air, but this means that aviation would stop fulfilling its main role, which is to be the engine of economic and social development. Perhaps the Greenpeace comment is a half-truth, because there are already European air operators that are flying with sustainable fuel and the aviation industry is building aircraft with new materials and manufacturing high-thrust and low-fuel-consumption engines, in order to promote to more sustainable aviation. Denying this reality would be like covering the sun with a finger. It is true that much remains to be implemented, but the industry is putting a huge amount of resources and working hard on it.
The list of actions that the aviation industry is developing for the benefit of decarbonization would be long, and as an specific proof of this I quote the following: «Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC), a business unit of Pratt & Whitney, a division of Raytheon Technologies, presented a plan to further develop and integrate its hybrid electric propulsion technology, in a flight demonstration programme, with an investment of $163 million that involves the governments of Canada and the United States.
Similarly, Qantas and Airbus recently agreed to invest up to $200 million to accelerate the establishment of a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry in Australia. Also, due to the lack of a local commercial-scale SAF industry, Australia is currently exporting millions of tonnes of feedstock each year, such as canola and animal tallow for converting them to SAF in other countries. This is another great example that other states of the world should follow.
Regarding this topic, we also have good news. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently announced that airlines in the Americas region “will be operating flights with sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) to demonstrate their commitment to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.”
Another great commitment to decarbonization, and not a minor one, came precisely from the COP26- 2021 Climate Summit in Glasgow, where “the urgency and opportunities of moving towards a carbon-neutral economy were expressed and the transparency and rigor of climate action plans were set, both from governments and companies.”
In the same way, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published in mid-June 2022, a regulation aimed at reducing the greenhouse gases (GHG) released into space by the majority of large aircraft that fly in the airspace of that country. “The standard requires higher fuel efficiency for new subsonic jet aircraft and large propeller and turboprop aircraft, which are not yet certified and for new aircraft manufactured after January 1, 2028.” This is a great and important regulation aimed at decarbonization.
Now, what is Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)?
Sustainable fuel is just one of the alternatives that are being used today to achieve the long-awaited decarbonization of the atmosphere and it is not the only one of the renewable energy resources that some air operators are using and we hope that many more will join this laudable crusade, in the search for the desired decarbonization.
To achieve the above, clear government support is required which, aware of global warming, promotes the mass production of sustainable aviation fuel to meet a growing and necessary demand, which is estimated for the year 2050 at a figure close to 400 million tons. A real challenge!
The research and development of sustainable fuels is of recent necessity and in its beginnings the first biofuels were produced from crops, such as corn and soybeans, but today they no longer compete with food sources, but instead produce energy from from non-edible plants such as grass or algae and others use food waste such as cooking oil.
Today sustainable fuels (SAF) generate up to 80% less carbon emissions than A-1 fuel, and are distributed in 47 airports around the world. With this, a figure of more than 360 thousand commercial flights is registered from this input. We hope that this number of flights will continue to increase.
In a recent report, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) pointed out that “to date, there are nine certified conversion processes to produce sustainable aviation fuels from a variety of feedstocks, including waste and residues. Airlines can now choose the type of sustainable fuel that suits them, including low-carbon fuels.”
ICAO adds that “in Latin America three SAF factories are being prepared, two in Brazil and one in Paraguay; the latter is expected to start operations this year. Among the inputs are palm oil, macauba palm oil and lipids such as tallow and oilseeds”. It is also noted that “there are a total of 21 SAF producers active in the world, most of which are located in the United States and in Europe. The company with the highest SAF production is Fulcrum with 6,719 million litres, followed by Gevo with 5,943 million and Alder Fuels with 5,678 million litres.”
So it is fair and necessary to recognize the efforts that ICAO is developing, when it says that “it is actively encouraging more countries and partners to participate in the aforementioned production of SAF, since this will create a positive domino effect worldwide and help unlock the potential of raw materials for the SAF markets, in the coming decades”.
As a summary, it can be concluded that there is a specific interest in decarbonizing the atmosphere with renewable energies in order to comply with the Paris Agreement promoted and supported by ICAO, IATA, Air Operators, ALTA, some NGOs, aircraft and engine manufacturers, some States and the flight operations departments of each airline and their pilots, who since the 1980s have concentrated on developing shorter routes and with flight profiles geared towards decarbonisation
What is missing then to ensure that the objectives set by the ICAO materialize in the shortest possible time?
To achieve the objectives of ICAO, I believe that today it is more necessary than ever for all governments, without exception, to promote, support and regulate the development of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) industry and to realize that we are very close to the point turning point of climate change, so we must be aware that, if we pass this point of no return, we will be in an unfortunate, inevitable and irreversible situation for the entire planetary ecosystem, so it is necessary to be absolutely clear today that it will be impossible to return to our original state.
Finally and by way of reflection, we must unfortunately point out that the measures that are just being taken today should have been taken in the 1950s, when scientists predicted the increase in temperature by several degrees as a result of the burning of fossil fuels! fossils!
(*) Exequiel Sanhueza, is a retired Airline Pilot and currently works as Professor at the Aeronautical Training Institute (ICA), in Cordoba, Argentina.