Travel-Washing: Aviation Industry Hails Virgin’s ‘Sustainable’ Jet Fuel Flight, But Is It Just Smoke & Mirrors?
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British carrier Virgin Atlantic flew the first transatlantic flight using 100% ‘sustainable’ aviation fuel on Tuesday, in a move celebrated by the airline industry and government – but concerns have been raised about how sustainable this really is, in more ways than one.
People have been dreaming for a time they could fly without a guilty conscience – depending on who you ask, the aviation industry accounts for 4.4–5% of global greenhouse gas emissions (including carbon dioxide).
Now, if you’ll believe the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) for a second, Virgin Atlantic could make that dream come true by making “guilt-free flying a reality”. The British carrier took off from London in the first transatlantic flight to use 100% ‘sustainable’ aviation fuel (SAF), landing in New York City. It was hailed as “the future of flying” by the DfT, who said marked “a milestone in decarbonising air travel.
But is it really all that simple? Prime minister Rishi Sunak called the partly government-funded flight “net zero” on X (formerly Twitter) – a statement that was criticised and hit with community notes explaining that the flight “emits more carbon than it stores”, and that the government says “carbon credits will need to be purchased” because it isn’t net zero.
Holly Boyd-Boland, vice president of corporate development at Virgin Atlantic, intimated as much, telling Sky News that “this isn’t a zero-emission flight”. This encapsulates the smoke-and-mirrors approach of this story: it’s a feat being celebrated by trade and government representatives, but campaigners are calling it out as unsustainable (both environmentally and viably).
Is it just more PR and good old green— sorry, travel-washing?
Why Virgin Atlantic’s SAF flight is a landmark
Virgin Atlantic’s flight VS100 is the result of a year of testing with engine manufacturer Rolls Royce, fuel supplier BP, with the UK government chipping in £1M for the project. Operating under special dispensation with no paying customers, the flight was fully powered by 50 tonnes of SAF.
SAFs can be made from a range of ingredients, including corn, animal fat, algae, sewage and municipal waste. As per US government guidelines, these must emit at least 50% less carbon than petroleum-based fuel. The one used for Virgin Atlantic’s Boeing 787 employed a blend of 88% waste fats (including from tallow) and the rest from corn production sidestreams in the US.
The flight was said to cut life-cycle emissions by 70% – so not net zero, but a significant reduction nonetheless. The aviation industry views SAF as a cornerstone to fulfil its commitment of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. This is because it’s a fuel that can be used in existing planes so it doesn’t require special engines or aircraft modifications.
So far, regulators have allowed carriers to use a maximum of 50% of SAF in their engines. Virgin Atlantic says its flight shows that these alternative fuels can be a safe replacement for kerosene-based jet fuel. Its co-founder Sir Richard Branson (who was onboard) said: The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it. The spirit of innovation is getting out there and trying to prove that we can do things better for everyone’s benefit.”
Shai Weiss, the company’s CEO, added: “It’s the only viable solution for decarbonising long-haul aviation. It’s taken radical collaboration to get here and we’re proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further.”
That last line is important, given that the aviation sector is notoriously hard to decarbonise, as well as what followed: “There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”
The supply issues for sustainable aviation fuels
The lack of availability is a big question mark for SAF. Currently, it makes up only 0.1% of all jet plane fuel used worldwide, and it’s three to five times more expensive to produce. This is despite annual production tripling from 2021-22 to reach 300 million litres – though what the industry really needs is 250 billion litres (over 700 times more than the current amount) for its net-zero ambitions.
As mentioned above, 88% of Virgin Atlantic’s SAF came from waste cooking oil, but the UK government is soon limiting its aviation use, believing it’s more useful for cars and lorries. This fuel was also imported from the US and the EU, as there are currently no dedicated plants to produce commercial SAF in the UK, but its government aims to have five under construction by 2025, supported by grants. The UK plans to have its airlines running on 10% SAF by 2030, as part of its Jet Zero goal for 2050.
But a report by the Royal Society Net Zero Aviation Policy earlier this year revealed that half of all British agricultural land – or over double its renewable electricity supply – would be needed to make sufficient amounts of SAF to meet these targets.
There are incentives from governments to increase the use of SAFs: in the US, the Inflation Reduction Act offers tax credits to airlines buying SAF, while the EU has enacted two laws mandating carriers to use these fuels, with companies needing to use 70% SAF by 2050.
Many are taking a pragmatic stance on SAFs, calling them a short-term plug-in until electric and hydrogen-powered alternatives are created. Professor Graham Hutchings of Cardiff University, who chaired the above report, told Sky News: “This Virgin flight is a good thing, it is important we use SAF and it is in the public mind. But we need to be very clear about the strengths, limitations, and challenges that must be addressed and overcome if we are to scale up the required new technologies in a few short decades.”
Even Branson admitted it would take a while before SAF was universally available, telling the BBC: “But you have to start somewhere. And if we didn’t prove it can be done, you would never, ever get sustainable aviation fuel.”
Why SAF isn’t as sustainable as airlines tell you
The way the government and aviation sector have presented the Virgin Atlantic flight has been criticised by campaigners concerned about the true climate impact of SAFs. “It’s a well-intentioned flight that’s been poorly executed and it’s been poorly executed because of a fuel that’s going into the plane,” Matt Finch, from the clean energy advocacy group Transport and Environment, told Sky News. “The fuel going in is just simply not sustainable.”
As Dr Guy Gratton, associate aviation and environment at Cranfield University, told the BBC: “We can’t produce a majority of our fuel requirements this way because we just don’t have the feedstocks. And even if you do, these fuels are not true ‘net zeros’.”
This was echoed by Tim Johnson, director of campaign group Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), who told the Financial Times that “the idea this is some landmark event that is going to revolutionise flying is clearly not the case”. He questioned whether current feedstocks used in SAFs are truly sustainable, sharing concerns about the land used for crops, the scalability of materials like animal fats or waste oils, and the amount of renewable energy required to produce cleaner fuels.
Scottish data scientist Hannah Ritchie expands on this issue in her newsletter, Sustainability by Numbers. “Putting food into cars is a poor use of land,” she explains. “The US is the world’s second-largest cereal producer. But only a fraction of that goes into human mouths. 44% goes to animal feed. And 44% to biofuels.”
Biofuels actually make up almost all of the US’s growth for corn demand – which would have been lower today than in 2000 if it weren’t for these fuels. Ritchie explains that the assumption that SAF is net zero has been challenged by a number of studies. “They estimate that biofuels have increased emissions, not decreased them. While these emissions are difficult to measure, the fact that there is even a credible debate as to whether they have made things worse or better suggests they’re not a great climate solution,” she writes.
This is why Cait Hewitt, policy director of the AEF, said: “The idea that this flight somehow gets us closer to guilt-free flying is a joke,” in response to the DfT’s comments. She accused the airline industry of being misleading consumers about SAF’s impact. Carriers like KLM (the Netherlands), Delta Air Lines (US) and Austrian Airlines have previously been sued over greenwashing.
Hewitt added that until there are better tech solutions, there’s only one way to cut our emissions from aviation: “Fly less.”