Airlines have a recipe for getting to zero emissions by 2050. The key ingredient: cooking oil

Earlier this month, a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Washington made a bit of aviation history, completing a 600-mile journey that the airline hopes will be the first step on a journey to a brighter future. green.

First, one of the 737 Max 8’s two engines ran exclusively on fuel made from used cooking oil, drawing residual fat from beef, pork and chicken. Refined at a plant in Southern California, the fuel produces about 80% fewer emissions than conventional jet fuel, according to the airline. The biofuel had been blended with conventional fuel in the past, but United Airlines reported that it had never been used alone in the engine of a commercial flight.

The Chicago airline took the flight to show the progress it has made towards its goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It’s a goal shared by the Air Transport Association International (IATA), the trade group representing the world’s airlines.

But achieving the lofty goal of completely eliminating emissions from aviation, which is responsible for 3-4% of global carbon emissions, will not be easy. Huge government investments in the form of tax breaks or subsidies and innovative technological advances, such as the development of hybrid or all-electric aircraft, will be needed, say aviation experts and academics.

Meanwhile, airlines that want to use more low-emission sustainable aviation fuel will have to pay up to four times more, compared to what they pay for conventional fuel, which could mean airfares. higher for everyone.

“It’s unclear how we’re going to get to this point,” said Jan Brueckner, professor and chair of the economics department at the UC Irvine Institute for Transportation Studies. “Maybe by 2050 it will be possible if a lot of things come together.”

United Airlines tested fuel made from used cooking oil and waste fat from beef, pork and chicken.

(United Airlines)

Not all airline executives are convinced that aviation emissions can be eliminated by 2050.

“I think we make a lot of promises that we can’t keep,” said Alex Wilcox, CEO and co-founder of JSX, an independent airline in Dallas, during a roundtable discussion on sustainability at a airline lounge in Long Beach. .

The airlines point out that the effort, even if the objective cannot be achieved, is good business sense.

“There are people who want to fly with an airline that reflects their beliefs and values,” said United spokesperson Maddie King. “Some customers are very interested in making their own lifestyle sustainable.”

A jet refueled with biofuel

Biofuel refined in a Southern California plant produces approximately 80% fewer emissions than conventional jet fuel.

(United Airlines)

Some may be motivated by what is known as flight shaming, the guilt felt by environmentally conscious travelers over the carbon footprint left by their air travel. It’s a sentiment that’s growing in popularity, thanks in part to the efforts of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg.

Another motivation for airlines is the fear that governments will start demanding emission reductions through fines or taxes. This has already started in Europe, where the European Union has proposed an environmental plan which, among other changes, would revamp the emissions program on a commercial basis and introduce fuel taxes in shipping and lorry for the first time. ‘aviation.

A survey conducted by a United Nations initiative of 1,200 business leaders around the world found that 72% believe sustainability is an immediate priority.

The term “net zero” is somewhat misleading. IATA states in its publications that the use of sustainable aviation fuel would only reach about 65% of the target, with an additional 13% coming from the application of new technologies to make aircraft lighter, more fuel efficient and more aerodynamic. . In recent years, many airlines have added “winglets” (vertical extensions of the tips of aircraft wings) to improve fuel efficiency by around 5%.

Of the remaining emissions reductions, the bulk, around 19%, is expected to come from so-called “carbon offset” or “carbon capture” technology.

In other words, airlines should offset some aviation emissions by paying a third to plant forests, preserve wetlands, or invest in nascent technology that captures carbon by intercepting it before it’s gone. released from operations such as coal-fired power plants, chemical plants or biomass plants to store it underground. United Airlines says it expects to meet its target without compensation.

A proposal from President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ plan envisions a fuel tax credit that could boost sustainable aviation fuel production to 3 billion gallons per year by 2030, still a fraction of fuel that airlines expect to need over the period. next decade.

“There is no doubt that there is a challenge,” Gebolys said. “It’s about the dimension.”

World Energy’s Paramount facility now has the capacity to refine cooking oil and turn animal fat into 15 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel per year. The fuel was used during United’s demonstration flight on Dec. 1 and is used on JetBlue flights departing from Los Angeles International Airport. The company is currently investing $1.5 billion to upgrade the facility to enable it to produce up to 370 million gallons per year.

“Getting where we are now, it will be an extremely ambitious goal to get to net zero. [de emisiones] by 2050″, comments Gebolys. ” I think that it is possible ? Definitively”.

A United Airlines plane on the runway

United Airlines flew the biofuel flight to show the progress it has made towards its goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

(United Airlines)

Neste, a Finnish company that bills itself as the world’s largest producer of renewable diesel and jet fuel, produces 34 million gallons a year, with plans to reach 515 million gallons by mid-2023.

“This is a nascent industry,” said Jeremy Baines, president of Neste in the United States. “Oil producers have been operating for 100 years.”

For now, biofuel producers rely on used cooking oil, rendered animal fat, the jatropha plant, algae and other so-called feedstocks, but experts say refiners don’t don’t have access to enough of these materials to produce the billions of gallons of jet fuel. necessary to reach the zero emissions objective.

About 3 billion gallons of used cooking oil are collected each year from hotels and restaurants nationwide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but a lot of the oil ends up in landfills or sewers. . About eight gallons of used cooking oil are needed to produce one gallon of sustainable aviation fuel, industry experts detail. This means that even if every drop of cooking oil were collected and turned into jet fuel today, it still wouldn’t be enough to power all of today’s flights.

“There is a finite amount of used cooking oil in the world,” said Joshua S. Heyne, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Dayton.

To motivate private companies to increase the collection of used cooking oil, rendered animal fat and other raw materials, governments would likely have to provide tax breaks or subsidies to make it profitable, industry experts say. .

“It’s doable, but you need incentives to make it happen,” Brueckner said.

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