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Anthony Browne MP: ‘Sustainable aviation fuel is a promising short-term opportunity’

Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, who was recently appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Transport – including responsibility for the decarbonisation of transport and the future of transport - writes for the Cambridge Independent about the first SAF flight.

To the passengers it might have looked like an ordinary Virgin Atlantic plane, but its mission was anything but ordinary.

The first transatlantic flight by an airliner powered by pure sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) took off on November 28. Picture: Virgin Atlantic
The first transatlantic flight by an airliner powered by pure sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) took off on November 28. Picture: Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Flight 100 from London to New York on November 28, carrying Sir Richard Branson and the Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Harper, was the first commercial airliner to fly across the Atlantic purely powered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

“What is SAF?” I hear you ask. It is aviation fuel that does not derive from fossil fuels, the decomposed bodies of prehistoric plants and animals that form our world’s underground oil and gas reserves. SAF can be made from a wide range of so-called feedstocks, such as used cooking oil, black bin waste or wood pulp. There are even trials to make it out of the amoeba grown in industrial vats.

One of the most exciting, potentially scalable developments is “power to liquid SAF”, where renewable electricity is used to make SAF out of air: the air we breathe contains hydrogen, oxygen and carbon, all the ingredients of hydrocarbons. That is after all what plants have been doing for billions of years – making organic matter (including gas and oil) out of air, with the help of sunlight.

Whatever SAF is produced from, it is processed to be a “drop-in” fuel, which means it can be used by any current airplanes without any modification. It is usually blended with ordinary aviation fuel, but as the Virgin flight showed, planes can also be fuelled by 100 per cent SAF.

Last month, Rolls Royce certified that their entire range of aero engines could run on 100 per cent SAF. When SAF is used, the greenhouse gas emissions of flights are reduced by around 70 per cent (the plan is to address the rest, with technologies like carbon capture and storage).

In the last few years, SAF has started to be seen around the world as a promising short-term opportunity for making global aviation more sustainable. There are prototype battery electric planes, but the current weight of the battery means the planes are small and their range is short.

In time, hydrogen-powered planes may be developed, but they are not operational yet and will require new types of aircraft and airframes. In contrast, with SAF, you can dramatically cut emissions on long haul flights using existing planes.

However, we know SAF is not without its challenges - there is no large-scale global industry yet to make it, nor is it clear what feedstocks will prove best.

At present just under one per cent of our aviation fuel around the world is SAF. This might seem a small amount, but in technology transitions, the first one per cent is generally as difficult as the next 99 per cent: it shows the concept works.

It means that airlines, airports, fuel companies, regulators and governments have worked out the science, the regulations, certifications, logistics and processes to get SAF to work. We have shown we know how to do this – we now just need to scale it up.

Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell
Anthony Browne, the Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire. Picture: Keith Heppell

In the UK, we are committed to having 10 per cent SAF in our aviation fuel mix by 2030. Last month, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN body that sets rules for global aviation, held a summit in Dubai to agree global rules among 200 countries to increase the use of SAF.

I chaired a UK-led coalition of 62 countries that are ambitious for sustainable aviation before holding a series of bilateral meetings with aviation ministers from other countries to make the case.

We ultimately negotiated a global agreement to reduce emissions by five per cent by 2030 using cleaner aviation fuels, including SAF. It is not legally binding, but it is still a major achievement: it sets the direction for the global aviation industry, and gives certainty to fuel companies and investors to push ahead with this new sector.

SAF is currently expensive - more than twice the price of kerosene - but the price will certainly fall as production is ramped up.

There is now a global race to produce SAF. Unlike oil and gas, which countries can only produce if they have been blessed by geology, any country could produce SAF: this is a huge economic opportunity that many developing countries are keen to benefit from.

We are also keen for the UK to make the most of this new industry: the government has been funding a wide range of projects in the UK to develop production of SAF. Energy companies are now planning major investments to scale it up.

We know SAF is not the only solution to decarbonising aviation, and we are working hard to ensure the sector achieves its goal of net zero by 2050 through all of the measures contained within our UK Jet Zero Strategy.

We’re aiming for ground operations at airports to be zero emissions by 2040, we’re working to make our airspace more efficient, and supporting the development of innovative technologies like carbon capture and storage which literally removes carbon from the atmosphere. We’re also working with world leading academic institutions such as the Whittle Laboratory and Cranfield University to better understand the non-carbon climate impacts of aviation, and what more we need to do to mitigate these effects.

Aviation has long been seen as one of the most difficult sectors to make sustainable, but we now know how to do it. A whole new SAF industry has been given permission to fly - and is just taking off.

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