Easyjet’s new net-zero emission target requires sustainable biofuels that are in extremely short supply

September 28, 2022, 10:28 AM UTC
Emmanuele Contini—NurPhoto/Getty Images

U.K.-based short haul airline Easyjet announced this week that it will ditch its carbon offset scheme—which it insists was always a “short term measure”—in favor of a more actionable net-zero emissions scheme. But, of course, the budget airline’s plan doesn’t countenance the most direct means of cutting carbon emissions: flying less.

“Today, we’re the first airline to outline an ambitious roadmap in which zero carbon emission technology plays a key role to take us to net-zero emissions by 2050 and ultimately to zero carbon emission flying across our entire fleet,” Easyjet CEO Johan Lundgren said.

The airline hasn’t set any hard targets for reducing its overall emissions, focusing instead on reducing “carbon intensity,” or the volume of CO2 produced per passenger, per kilometer. Easyjet aims to achieve a 35% reduction in carbon intensity by 2030 and a 78% reduction by 2050, relying on direct air carbon capture to suck up the remaining 22% of greenhouse gas emissions.

(That’s a tall order. According to Fortune, decades of carbon capture work by Shell has to date only removed the equivalent of 8% of the carbon produced by the EU’s total aviation industry in an average year.)

Focusing on “carbon intensity” leaves room for Easyjet to continue increasing its total carbon footprint until the day it achieves its ultimate goal of “zero carbon emissions flying.” The company has set no deadline for that goal.

Several of Easyjet’s objectives for cutting carbon intensity depend on improving operational efficiency, such as buying new planes that can glide for longer, and pressuring governments to streamline flight routes. But the core of Easyjet’s reduction strategy relies on substituting kerosene with Sustainable Air Fuels (SAFs).

SAFs are lower-carbon products such as recycled cooking oil, biofuels made from other organic feedstock, or chemically-produced synthetic fuels, such as hydrogen. But biofuels are not designed to completely replace the kerosene that currently powers planes.

SAFs are what EU regulators call a “drop-in” alternative, which can be mixed in with kerosene to substitute a portion of the total fuel volume. That means incorporating SAFs won’t necessarily reduce the airline industry’s total fossil fuel usage if overall fuel consumption grows.

According to BP, SAFs can “be blended at up to 50%” with traditional jet fuel. But the oil major also expects air travel to double by 2050 which, crudely, would mean that with a 50% SAF-kerosene mix, the aviation industry would still be burning the same volume of fossil fuels in 30 years as it does today.

The other issue with SAFs is that they are in extremely limited supply. According to the International Air Travel Association (IATA), global SAF production is at about 1 million barrels of fuel per year. The global aviation industry burns roughly six times that volume of kerosene every day. To be a useful tool in cutting airline carbon emissions, SAF production needs to surge more than 3,500-fold by 2050, the IATA says. 

There simply isn’t enough leftover cooking oil in the world to achieve that growth, and designing a fuel economy that depends on increased waste elsewhere is hardly sustainable. 

Easyjet’s long-term goal is to operate a fleet of aircraft that emit no greenhouse gas: planes that burn green hydrogen. The airline’s engine partner, Rolls-Royce, is close to demonstrating a hydrogen-power jet turbine and if the technology takes off hydrogen planes could prove a viable option for short-haul transport.

But, until then, reducing air travel remains the only surefire way to reduce emissions. Reducing carbon intensity while increasing total fuel usage just isn’t enough.

Eamon Barrett


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