World’s first net zero transatlantic flight could be delivered in 2023

The government has pledged to deliver the world’s first transatlantic flight fuelled purely by environmentally friendly aviation fuel by the end of next year.

The announcement was made by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps during a speech to industry leaders in the US. Meeting with airline executives, he invited the international sector to work closely with the UK government to deliver the demonstrator flight in 2023, paving the way for flights on the transatlantic route, and many more, to be powered solely by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Low carbon economy

Industry estimates suggest that a UK SAF industry could support up to 5,200 UK jobs directly, as well as a further 13,600 through global exports. The industry estimates its annual turnover could reach £2.3 billion by 2040.

The new initiative has come out of the Jet Zero Council, a partnership between industry and government that aims to deliver new technologies and innovative ways to cut aviation emissions while supporting the UK economy.

Sustainable aviation fuel

Today’s announcement is part of plans to reduce emissions from aviation to net zero. Currently one of the highest single emitters of greenhouse gases, aviation is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to making transport green.

The fuel, made from waste materials, such as household waste or used cooking oil, offers greenhouse gas emissions savings of more than 70% compared to conventional fossil jet fuel when fully replacing kerosene. When combined with greenhouse gas removals, the government says that 100% SAF will enable the delivery of a net zero flight.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said “This trailblazing net zero emissions flight, a world first, will demonstrate the vital role that sustainable aviation fuel can play in decarbonising aviation in line with our ambitious net zero targets. That’s not just great news for the environment, it’s great news for passengers who will be able to visit the Big Apple without increasing damaging greenhouse gas emissions. It’s crucial that we place sustainability at the heart of the aviation industry’s recovery from COVID-19 and I look forward to working with them on this challenge, which will lower the impact flying across the Atlantic has on the planet.”

Current jet fuel specifications do not allow flights to use 100% SAF, meaning SAF use needs to be complemented by additional decarbonisation measures to be fully net zero. The government says it will accelerate the testing and approval of 100% SAF to unlock the full decarbonisation potential of this technology.

The government said that delivering the transatlantic flight would help to gather the data needed to support ongoing and future work to test and certify sustainable aviation fuel while exploring how engine efficiency improvements, flight optimisation and greenhouse gas removals can contribute to achieving net-zero flights.

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said, “UK airlines strongly support the development of a UK SAF industry, which will play a vital role in helping our sector deliver net zero emissions by 2050, as we are committed to doing. This announcement will provide additional momentum to achieving this and, alongside the recent £180 million in Treasury support for the development of new UK SAF plants, demonstrates the commitment of government to making SAF a key part of the decarbonisation of aviation.”

Cost barriers

Fuel specifications are not the only barrier preventing a higher uptake of SAF. High fuel production costs, technology risk at commercial scale and feedstocks availability are some of the challenges that government and industry are jointly working to overcome in order to build a thriving domestic SAF sector.

The government is exploring a SAF mandate and is supporting the UK SAF industry with £180 million of funding over the next 3 years, aiming to accelerate the commercialisation of SAF plants and the establishment of a fuel testing clearing house in the UK, as announced in the Net Zero Strategy.

In addition to the £180 million funding, £400 million of funding is being made available through a government partnership with Breakthrough Energy Catalyst to drive private sector investment into the next generation of green technologies, through which UK SAF projects may seek additional capital.

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