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Virgin Atlantic’s ‘100% Sustainable’ Flight is just a Greenwashing Gimmick say Experts

Experts question just how ‘sustainable’ burning cooking oil rather than kerosene really is

Virgin Atlantic boss Sir Richard Branson. Photo: Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

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Virgin Atlantic claims to be flying the first 100% “sustainable aviation fuel” (SAF) plane from London Heathrow to JFK airport in New York today (28 November).

The Transport Secretary Mark Harper himself was on the jaunt – with a Government announcement boasting: “The flight – made possible by up to £1 million in funding from the government – is a major milestone towards making air travel more environmentally friendly as we move towards our goal of net zero by 2050.”

The Boeing 787 test flight is being powered by 50 tons of so-called sustainable air fuel, coming from used cooking oil and “waste fats”, including waste from corn production in the United States. Richard Branson’s firm claims the fuel has  “lifecycle emissions up to 70% lower” than conventional kerosene.

But all may not be as it seems. 

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Alethea Warrington, a senior campaigner at climate charity Possible, told Byline Times it was a “gimmick”.

“They can’t use used cooking oil to power more than a tiny tiny fraction of the aviation industry’s kerosene flights. If they tried to scale it up, it would cause all these other problems. There’s going to be more palm oil entering the supply chain, and more deforestation and the environmental issues that come from that.”  

The tailpipe emissions from burning used cooking oil are “exactly the same” as kerosene made from fossil fuels, Warrington says. “The claim from industry is that SAF equates to ‘up to 70% emissions reductions’. The way they’re working that out is often quite dodgy. 

“They’re using a carbon accounting methodology which is often not looking at the wider systemic issues…Is additional land needed to grow crops for oil? Are others using fossil fuels instead of the ‘waste’ oil that’s now going in flights?” 

Helena Bennett, head of climate policy at Green Alliance UK added: “It’s being hailed as a “monumental milestone”, but that’s not quite right. Reporting states that the use of 100% SAF will reduce emissions significantly. [But] emissions from the jet are the same as fossil fuels.”

“Virgin Atlantic’s flight comprises around 90% “used cooking oil” in its flight today – which is obviously limited, and is already used in biodiesel for other transport…[This] stock will be scarce,” she said. 

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And Bennett claimed that most planes in the current fleet will be able to take “far less” than 100% SAF. “The engine in the flight today is not like other engines. So emissions reductions from using SAF in the existing fleet are far less than today’s flight.”

She urged readers to “beware [of] greenwashing today that this is a huge achievement. It’s looking likely that SAF will not be a considerable contributor to reducing aviation emissions.”

Alethea Warrington urged airlines to “start being honest” about the real carbon cost of flying – including with SAFs – and called for governments to help reduce demand. 

Matt Finch, UK Policy Manager at Transport & Environment, backed up the comments, saying: “There will be a lot of noise about how this flight will “usher in an era of guilt-free flying” but it will do nothing of the sort.”

Even under the Government’s own ‘Jet Zero’ strategy, fossil jet fuel will be burnt until well after 2050. 

He noted that SAF is not a “single thing”, but an umbrella term for lots of different ways of making jet fuel. “Some of them are good for the environment, but some of them are terrible. Virgin has opted for the terrible option,” Finch added. 

However, ministers appear focussed on “technological innovation” to decarbonise aviation, – without tackling the easy (but unpopular in the industry) wins such as increasing the price of fossil jet fuel, making planes fly in straight lines or banning airlines from tankering [too much] fuel.”

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It was meant to be a disaster, but the doomsayers appear to be in retreat.

One climate campaigner noted that Virgin’s SAF mix still draws on “crop-based biofuels [which] compete with food security.” 

For the rest of the sector, the think tank Transport and Environment notes that “buying SAF does not mean flying on SAF. SAF is not physically available at all airports, mainly because they are produced only in a limited number of locations.”

A Chatham House study published last week found: “Most supply-side options for reducing aviation carbon emissions – such as zero-emissions aircraft and sustainable aviation fuels – are yet to be scaled and are still at the R&D phase…Acting prudently, and reducing demand for flights in the short term, would offer the best chance of enabling the sector to play its role in achieving net zero.”

Last month, a test electric-powered flight went from Vermont to Florida, a 1,400 mile, 16-day trip that required the Beta Technologies pilot to take nearly two dozen stops to rest and recharge. Batteries are incredibly heavy and electric flight is only expected to be used for small-scale, private-jet style transport in the next couple of decades. 

Also today, the Green Party demanded a ban on all private jets taking off or landing at UK airports. The party says this form of transport, favoured by the super-rich, is the ultimate symbol of ‘climate inequality’. A new Oxfam report has found that the richest 1% of the population produce as much planet warming pollution each year as the five billion people who make up the poorest two-thirds of the global population. 

Greenpeace has found that European private jets emitted a total of 5.3m tonnes of CO2 between 2020 and 2023, with the number of flights multiplied by five during that time, reaching 573,000 in 2022. 

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Josiah Mortimer also writes the On the Ground column, exclusive to the print edition of Byline Times.

So for more from him…


Do you have a story that needs highlighting? Get in touch by emailing josiah@bylinetimes.com


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