Q&A | Environment

Q&A: fuelling the UK’s green recovery with Sustainable Aviation

In June, the UK Sustainable Aviation coalition requested that the aviation sector be placed at the heart of the UK Government’s green recovery plan. Ilaria Grasso Macola spoke to programme director Andy Jefferson about why sustainable aviation fuels are the future of the industry.

Sustainable Aviation –  a coalition of UK airlines, airports and manufacturers founded in 2005 – has asked the UK Government to pledge more support for cutting down the sector’s vast environmental impact.

The requests put forward by the coalition in a letter to UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps included support to develop aircraft and engine technology, ensuring the UK is amongst the first countries to develop hybrid aircraft, and accelerating UK airspace modernisation. Sustainable Aviation’s programme director Andy Jefferson explains more.

Ilaria Grasso Macola: For those who don't know, what did the letter Sustainable Aviation sent to the transport secretary contain, and when was it signed?

Andy Jefferson: The letter was sent on Friday last week and was signed by Sustainable Aviation’s CEO, Adam Morton, who is also the head of environment technologies at Rolls Royce.

In terms of background, the letter shows the UK aviation industry's commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and illustrates what, with the UK Government’s support, we would like to do to achieve that.

What were the recommendations laid out in the letter?

What we wanted to highlight to the government was that we believe there's a really quick win to help the aviation sector decarbonise, which is for the UK Government to provide greater support for sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which are made from second-generation biofuels. 

Another request we presented is asking the government for £500m in support over five years, which would also be matched by the industry, leading to a total investment of £1bn. 

The investment would support the development of SAF processing and production plants in the UK, the first of its kind.

sustainable aviation fuels


What are the reasons to support a £500m investment in aviation fuels?

The reason such an investment is needed is that these are new innovation products. We need to create confidence in investors from the private sector that these innovations are viable commercially. To do that, we need some help to get these first plants up and running to prove the business case.

What kind of impact will SAF have on the wider aviation sector?

Aviation, as an industry, has got a challenge [as other sectors have] to achieve net zero by 2050 and sustainable aviation fuels will play a vital part in doing that, as SAF can reduce carbon emission by 30%. These fuels will also generate lifecycle carbon savings of around 70% compared to fossil fuel-based kerosene. 

What we're hoping to do is to prove the concept of these fuel sources and this production method, which will then hopefully be able to be exported more broadly across the rest of the world.

How will SAF help the UK to recover from the recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic?

By investing in this technology now there are some great economic opportunities and some social opportunities as well. According to an independent work that we requested, by 2035 we could have 14 plants producing sustainable aviation fuel across the UK, in a variety of geographical locations, which will produce economic benefits across the whole country. 

Those plants could create 5,200 direct jobs in the UK and provide, through an export potential, up to 13,600 jobs. From developing this industry, we would be looking at a total gross value added of just under £3bn.

sustainable aviation fuels

Velocys is creating a commercial plant in Immingham, UK that will manufacture sustainable jet fuel. Image: Velocys

You mentioned Sustainable Aviation’s decarbonisation roadmap. Can you tell me how this letter aligns with it?

Sustainable Aviation’s decarbonisation roadmap, which was firstly developed in 2008, takes a look at how we can deliver the growth in travel demand, which will grow by 70% by 2050, without causing any issues for climate change and striving towards a net-zero target. 

The decarbonisation roadmap says that, despite the growth in demand to travel by air, we believe we can get down to net-zero CO2 emissions through smart flights and airspace modernisation, [as well as] new technology for aircraft including the use of sustainable fuels.

Through those actions, we can effectively reduce our carbon emissions by 2050 compared to where we are now or where we were a few years ago. 

We’ll also need to make sure that we pay for those residual emissions to be taken out from other solutions, including carbon offsetting and carbon removal. We’ll get to net-zero emission through [a combination of] all these actions.

What future do you see for sustainable aviation fuels?

I think a great future lies ahead for them, as they are a really exciting and innovative opportunity. 

Some companies are already looking at different solutions, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. In BA’s case, they are looking at solid waste that would otherwise go to the landfill, and converting it into jet fuel. With Virgin Atlantic, we’re looking at capturing waste gas from industrial processing and converting it into jet fuel. 

In both cases, you are avoiding emission to the atmosphere that otherwise would have taken place. 

Going forward, there will be more opportunities, especially as we might reach a point where we’ve got more renewable energy than we actually need. We can use that renewable energy to help make sustainable fuel.

Sustainable Aviation programme director Andy Jefferson

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