Heathrow CEO: Aviation should have priority access to sustainable biofuels

Aviation sector will not be able to reach net zero if worldwide capacity of sustainable fuels is split between different transport sectors, John Holland Kaye warned at BusinessGreen’s Net Zero Festival

Heathrow Airport CEO  John Holland-Kaye has urged policymakers to give the aviation sector priority access to the world’s sustainable biofuel capacity, warning that a failure do so could undermine the carbon-intensive industry’s transition to net zero.

Biofuels are seen as a lower-carbon alternative to fossil fuels in heavy transport, and a number of firms have been trialing blends of biofuels with conventional jet fuel to reduce emissions from commercial flights. However, while several countries such as Norway have set targets for airlines to use a minimum amount of biofuels to power their planes, there are concerns that growing demand from a number of transportation sectors could outstrip supply in future, in part due to the amount of land and infrastructure required to sustainably produce biofuel feedstocks such as palm oil and waste residues. 

But speaking at BusinessGreen’s inaugural Net Zero Festival yesterday, Holland-Kaye said aviation should have priority access to sustainable biofuels to help decarbonise the sector in pursuit of net zero emissions, arguing that other forms of heavy-duty road transport have a broader range of low carbon technologies and fuels at their disposal to shift away from fossil fuels.

“We shouldn’t be competing with cars and trucks for biofuel,” he said. “There are alternatives, such as electric, for trucks and cars but there is no alternative for sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) for flight. One important policy measure is to protect global capacity of sustainable for aviation. That is the only way we can get to net zero by 2050.”

The Heathrow chief executive’s comments came during a panel discussion on the potential pathways to decarbonisation in the aviation sector, chaired by TV presenter and actor Robert Llewellyn. They were also joined by Henrick Wareborn, chief executive of sustainable avitation fuel developer Velocys; Val Miftakhow, chief executive of zero emission aviation firm ZeroAvia; and Rolls Royce’s chief technology officer Paul Stein.

Decarbonising the aviation sector, which accounts for between two and five per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, remains a huge challenge, and panellists explored the potential of a slew of low carbon solutions, including sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell technologies, and energy efficiency innovations.

They agreed that there was an urgent need to ramp up production of SAFs, which can be blended with fossil fuels and therefore drive decarbonisation in the sector in the shorter term without the need for overhauling of engine technology and aviation fleets.

Rolls Royce’s Stein predicted that the aviation sector would need 500 million tonnes of SAF annually, and as such he said policy and regulatation was required in the short term to dramatically ramp up production. “We need a call to arms globally to get the right economic and regulatory conditions in place to encourage ramp up [of SAFs],” he said. “It’s a big undertaking. We can do it, but its not flicking a switch, it’s a big systemic issue.”

SAFs are particularly necessary as a kerosene substitute for long haul flights, given that alternative options, such as battery electric technology do not meet the energy density requirements needed to power heavier planes going longer distances. 

The panellists also called on policymakers to introduce an international standard which mandates that a baseline quota of non-fossil fuel be blended into the aviation fuel mix in order to stimulate demand for alternative fuels and encourage the ramp up of production of attentive fuels. Such a standard is already in place in Norway, which introduced a 0.5 per cent sustainable aviation fuel quota at the beginning of the year.

“In terms of a competitive price comparison, the best way to make sure it happens is to legislate that from a particular day in the future, 10 per cent [of the fuel mix] has to be renewable,” Velocys’ Wareborn said. “Then there’s no argument about competitiveness.”

COP26 and the 2022 meeting of UN aviation agency ICAO provide major platforms for policymakers to set some common standards and targets for fuel mix, Holland-Kaye said. “It’s no good if just Norway does this and the UK does something different,” he said. “We need to have consistent targets focused on the same measures, such as mandates, across Europe and then internationally.”

Meanwhile, Rolls Royce’s Stein stressed that improvements in engine efficiency would also play a major role in helping the industry deacarbonise. New engine technology currently being developed by Rolls Royce dubbed Ultra Fan will drive a “step change” in fuel efficiency of roughly ten per cent, he said.

Looking further into the future, Stein predicted that fleet efficiency could improve by as much as 30 per cent between now and 2050. “It does involve some fleet churn, but its doable,” he mused.


Read more: businessgreen.com