Why the world’s first flight powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel is a green mirage
We are led to believe that this is proof of concept for “guilt-free” flying. We have been in this situation before, and the results were not green.
Based on the research we conducted into how wealth powers and influences the environment, we argue that the continued growth of aviation, like the economy as a whole, cannot be compatible with the prevention of runaway climate changes. Technology being developed by the industry today has no chance of changing this. Virgin’s latest fuel experiment is not much more sustainable than its previous one.
Virgin’s sustainability program dates back to the 2000s when British businessman Richard Branson led the initiative. Virgin’s sustainability initiative dates back to the 2000s, when British business magnate Richard Branson was at its helm. The mission was technically successful, but the claims about sustainability were ridiculous.
Fueling that shorthop using 100% coconut oil would have required three million coconuts. Heathrow, one of the 18,000 airports in the world, would only be able to use the entire crop for a few short weeks. Virgin stopped using coconut oil after this stunt.
Virgin’s newest flight is a rehash of 2008. Virgin’s latest flight is a repeat of 2008.
Even waste products can’t be recycled.
Virgin’s defense rests on its claim that its new SAF does not come exclusively from crops. It’s blended with waste. Virent is a Wisconsin-based organization that has been supplying Virgin with transatlantic flights since the mid-1990s. Virent produces SAF using conventional sugars, such as corn, combined with wood, agricultural waste, and used cooking oils.
Coconuts are a good example of a crop that competes with food and moves the frontiers of agriculture further into forests and peatlands. This releases large amounts of carbon.
What about the waste products, then? Is reusing cooking oil the right solution? In a notoriously unregulated market, this does not seem to be the case.
Nestle is another Virgin supplier that collects cooking oil from worldwide sources, including McDonald’s restaurants in the Netherlands and food processors located in California, Oregon, and Washington. The US Department of Agriculture claims that certain trades in SAF feedstocks, including those from Indonesia to Neste’s refinery in Singapore, may be “fraud.”
Nestle has denied this claim. Even if the used cooking oils are completely legitimate, it is claimed that palm oil from plantations that cause tropical deforestation is being marketed under the name used cooking oil.
Virgin Atlantic claims that its SAF is entirely made from used cooking oils. Suppose the aviation industry places a large bet on used cooking oils. In that case, there is concern that it could accelerate tropical logging and lead to the extinction of the orangutan, as well as countless other species.
Orangutans and other endangered species would be threatened by more tropical logging. Michail_Vorobyev/Shutterstock
Even if all used oils were traceable and sustainably sourced, they would not be scalable. Each year, the US collects about 600,000.00 tonnes of used cooking oil. The US contains around 600,000 tonnes of used cooking oil each year.
Capturing the White House
SAFs are not the panacea that the aviation industry has us believe they will be. They have many shortcomings, including the inability to scale, the conflict between agricultural inputs and foods, forests, and wildlife, and the CO2 emissions resulting from Land Use Change. SAF fever is sweeping the White House despite this.
The Inflation Reduction Act established targets for SAF at 3 billion gallons in 2030 and 35 billion by 2050. These are fantasy targets. If they are reached, it will increase the pressure on wildlife and food prices.
The fact that SAF is so widely promoted attests to a lack of alternatives. The battery-powered aircraft are only viable as “flying cabs” for short distances that compete with ground transport. Hydrogen is the other panacea, but it faces colossal technical and infrastructure barriers, issues of scalability and competing uses, and environmental concerns.
The returns on modifying aircraft technology, such as the engine size or wing form, have also been decreasing. Aviation emissions continue to rise because efficiency improvements are far behind growth in the aviation sector.
What is the next step?
Virgin’s CEO Steve Ridgway explained the logic behind the flight in 2008. He stated that the aviation industry must “be seen to be doing anything.” The playbook is the same 15 years later.
Virgin Atlantic SAF promises to save the airline and its passengers from climate change. By buying into this fantasy, governments can avoid taking climate change seriously.
Within the boundaries of our planet, we have the opportunity to create a great life for everyone. To get there, the aviation industry must be slowed down.
For short-haul travel, this would start with alternatives that are based on the ground. Many flights within the US could be quickly replaced by coach travel, and more than a quarter of flights between EU destinations could be replaced with high-speed trains. For long-haul travel, the first step will be demand Management. This will accelerate the use of marine transportation, virtual conferencing, and other alternatives.
High-speed rail could replace many flights. ap/Shutterstock
Developing alternative solutions would be efficient and practical and create jobs. Now is the time to start. In recent years, Americans have “fallen out of love with Flying” in part because of the large number of flight cancellations due to bad weather. This is likely to continue with climate breakdown.
The aviation industry may find it more difficult to avoid its responsibility as the weather chaos gets worse.
Virgin Atlantic’s spokesperson responded to the article by saying that they are committed to reaching net zero by 2050 and have set interim targets, including 10% SAF for 2030. SAF is seen as a medium-term solution to decarbonize aviation. Flight100 will demonstrate 100% SAF in existing infrastructure. Virgin Atlantic referenced a Sustainable Aviation Report, which indicated that there was enough feedstock to reach the government’s target of 2030 without causing environmental damage or affecting crop production.