“Jet zero”: emission-free air travel, future-proof flight or fantasy?

“Jet zero”: emission-free air travel, future-proof flight or fantasy?

“The Jet Zero strategy is designed to secure the future of aviation so passengers can expect a guilt-free journey.”

That’s the goal of Grant Shapps and the Department for Transport’s new plan, announced this week, to deliver emissions-free air travel by 2050. It sounds great for travelers and it has a catchy name, but is- this too good to be true?

Research by a group led by the University of Cambridge, Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA), shared with Sky News, shows the scale of the challenge facing the government and the global airline industry.

Right now we’re burning 10 tons of jet fuel every second – that’s an Olympic swimming pool every three minutes. To replace it with sustainable aviation fuel, current production would need to increase more than 1,000 times.

We’ll get to the other hurdles – land use, electricity, new planes, and money later.

The plan

Six key targets aim to ensure that the government’s ambitious 2050 target is achieved. There are two we’ll look at in more detail, but click on the others for a quick overview of what they entail.

  1. Improve aircraft efficiency
  2. Encourage customers to make green choices
  3. Capturing and offsetting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions
  4. Dealing with other non-CO2 warming effects of flight
  5. Use more sustainable fuels
  6. Zero emission flight

Points 5 and 6 are the ones we are going to detail, they consist in creating either new fuels or new aircraft.

The industry is currently trying to increase production of “sustainable aviation fuels”, which are direct substitutes for fossil jet fuel. These fuels include both biofuels, made from plants or biomass waste streams; and “synthetic” jet fuels, produced from the electricity used to make hydrogen from water and carbon dioxide captured from the air.

In terms of new aircraft, manufacturers are engaged in the development of two new types of aircraft – hydrogen and battery. Current battery-powered planes can only fly a few hundred miles, but hydrogen-powered planes are attractive because they could potentially fly any distance jet planes can currently fly.

The government is organizing a competition with a prize for the first company capable of carrying out a transatlantic flight with 100% sustainable fuels.

New fuels

One of the tools developed by the AIA is called “Journey Impact Simulator”. It provides detailed estimates of the various impacts that different fuels would have on things like CO2 emissions, land use, electricity demand and monetary cost, for flying in the future.

The tool draws on technical data from a wide range of industries and was built by a team of over 60 experts from around the world, led by the University of Cambridge. It hasn’t launched yet but they shared some results with us, looking at a flight from London Heathrow to JFK in New York in 2035.

This year is significant because it’s about halfway to the 2050 goal, and when Airbus announces they’ll have a hydrogen-powered plane on the market.

After reviewing thousands of different technologies, fuels and routes, considering every element involved in production, the two best options identified by the AIA to replace jet fuel are green hydrogen and synthetic fuels.

They are expected to be available in significant volume by 2035 and are also two of the methods the government is most interested and willing to invest in.

First, in terms of climate impact, the benefits of moving away from fossil jet fuel are clear.

Alternative fuels do not entirely eliminate the climate impact, but the reductions are significant. Currently, the climate impact per passenger of a London-New York flight would be equivalent to 27% of the carbon footprint of an entire UK household for one year. This would drop by almost half to around 15% with liquid hydrogen or synthetic jet fuels.

The remaining climate impact is mainly caused by non-CO2 effects such as contrails. The only net CO2 emissions from new fuels come from building the equipment needed to produce the fuel – wind turbines, nuclear power plants, electrolyzers and aircraft.

But creating these new fuels is incredibly energy-intensive.

Producing enough synthetic fuel for a London-New York flight would use 1.4 times as much energy as a UK household in a year. And that’s for every passenger. For hydrogen, this would represent around 80% of a household’s annual electricity budget.

To power all of today’s aircraft using synthetic fuels, it would take 40% of global electricity generation, or all of the world’s low-carbon renewable and nuclear energy, to be used for air travel alone.

This is partly simply because the amount of jet fuel needed is so large – and partly because making jet fuel from air and water is extremely electricity intensive.

It’s also expensive. The tool predicts that the cost of producing synthetic jet fuel could more than double the price of a ticket. By 2035, in the best-case scenario, with low-cost green hydrogen and if hyper-efficient engine technologies can be developed, the cost of refueling a jet and an airplane hydrogen could be similar.

The price could fall due to efficiency improvements and falling renewable energy prices, but even in the AIA’s absolute best-case scenario, they predict synthetic jet fuel use will see a 50% increase the price of a ticket.

The options we have seen are those with the least impact on the climate. Another option, which would not reduce the climate impact as much, but is cheaper and faster to scale, is biofuels – fuel made from plants.

But these are incredibly land-intensive. Producing enough fuel from wood to match today’s annual jet fuel consumption would require a forest half the size of Europe.

Some biofuels could be made from crops — but replacing our current global appetite for jet fuel with crops would be the equivalent of giving every person on the planet 1,500 to 2,000 extra calories every day. Further crop growth on this scale would compete with food production and water use, again only to fuel air travel.

What are the solutions ?

According to the AIA, “It’s really important to look at the holistic system – from resource requirements to all the different climate impacts. To keep flying, we need to work fast. Our investments and policy decisions need to be based on an understanding of the entire aviation industry.”

For some experts, it ultimately boils down to something quite simple – people traveling less.

Leo Murray, director of innovations at climate action campaign group Possible, says the plans show “the government has downplayed the scale of the challenge”.

Possible’s research shows that under successive governments, the aviation industry has achieved only one of its targets set since 2000.

“The goals are voluntary and there are no consequences for not meeting them, because they don’t expect them to be met. Nobody really anticipates these technological improvements, if they did, they would have no problem establishing a plan B that holds the industry accountable.

“There is currently no tax on kerosene or airline tickets, they are in the same category as basic necessities like wheelchairs and baby clothes. Even tampons are just coming in in this category. Look at the tax we pay for other means of transport.

“It’s hard for politicians to go back on this and make air travel more expensive, but normal travelers who have one or two family holidays a year are not the problem. We don’t want these trips, which are sacrosanct in British culture, being inaccessible to people on low incomes.

“Business travel isn’t even the problem, it’s one in ten flights and it’s been going down since COVID. The problem is that the top 15% of people are taking 70% of all flights, for We can charge these people with a frequent flyer tax and try to reduce the overall demand for air travel.

“We’re just going to have to do less air travel. At the moment we don’t have any plans to meet our climate change commitments.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “We are committed to decarbonising transport, not by stopping people doing things, but by helping people to do the same things differently and more sustainably.

“Our analysis suggests that the aviation sector can achieve Jet Zero without the need for direct government intervention to limit aviation growth, with net zero targets achieved by focusing on new fuels and technologies. ‘in a way that mitigates impacts on broader sustainability.”

Watch the Daily Climate Show at 3.30pm Monday to Friday and The Climate Show with Tom Heap Saturday and Sunday at 3.30pm and 7.30pm.

All on Sky News, on the Sky News website and app, on YouTube and Twitter.

The show investigates how global warming is changing our landscape and highlights solutions to the crisis.

AIA’s Journey Impact Simulator, one of the tools used in this article, will launch publicly later this year. Their resource-to-climate comparison tool, RECCE, compares different fuels and technologies in 2035 in terms of climate impact and the use and cost of global resources needed, is online on the AIA website.

The Data and forensics The team is a versatile unit dedicated to delivering transparent Sky News journalism. We collect, analyze and visualize data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite imagery, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling, we aim to better explain the world while showing how our journalism is done.

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