Virgin's flight powered by vegetable oil is pioneering green aviation.

The math doesn't add up.

November 28th 2023.

Virgin's flight powered by vegetable oil is pioneering green aviation.
The age of guilt-free flying has finally arrived? Well, not so fast. A recent Virgin Atlantic flight, powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), marks a "historic moment in aviation's roadmap to decarbonisation". However, according to researchers Gareth Dale and Josh Moos, this may not be the answer.

Emissions from air travel account for a large percentage of global greenhouse emissions every year, so if we are to limit global warming to 1.5C, aviation will have to become more environmentally friendly. Though this test flight was only a proof of concept, advancements in technology could lead to lower prices.

The problem is that, even in the US, all of the waste cooking oil could only meet 1% of the demand for aviation fuel - at most. Further, waste cooking oil is a ‘notoriously unregulated market’, and there are concerns that it could be mixed with palm oil from plantations responsible for tropical deforestation.

Previous attempts at creating SAF have relied on virgin crops, which raise their own environmental issues. For example, to fuel a short hop from London to Amsterdam with 100% coconut oil would have consumed 3 million coconuts. The entire global crop would supply Heathrow for only a few weeks, and this is one of 18,000 commercial airports worldwide.

Alternative solutions to SAF are few and far between. Battery-powered planes are viable but only as short-haul “flying taxis” that compete with ground transport. Hydrogen faces “colossal technological and infrastructural barriers”. So, the answer may be to clip the wings of the aviation industry and focus on alternative methods of transport.

Within the US, many flights could be replaced by coach travel, and over a quarter of flights between EU destinations could be replaced by high-speed rail. For long-haul, the first step is demand management, which will expedite the use of virtual conferencing, marine transportation and other alternatives. Developing these alternatives is practical, efficient and could create jobs.

Though today's flight is powered entirely by used cooking oil, if the aviation industry ‘bets big’ on this fuel, it could turbocharge tropical logging and the extermination of endangered species.

Finding quick, cheap alternatives to flying is no mean feat, and many new solutions will have to be tested along the way. We must be careful to not gloss over these challenges with a slick of cooking oil. It's time to move away from air travel and look for greener methods of transportation.

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