As New Zealand lags in the use of sustainable aviation fuel - and developing an industry to make it here - the pace is picking up elsewhere.
In the past week a flurry of action or announcements on sustainable aviation fuel (Saf) has included a giant Airbus A380 jet performing the first flight with one of its four engines powered by 100 per cent Saf, made primarily from used cooking oil.
All Airbus aircraft are already certified to fly with a blend of up to 50 per cent Saf mixed with kerosene. Qantas is also expanding its use of Saf, and has already committed to use the fuel on longhaul routes. Yesterday it announced a target of 10 per cent use in the group's fuel mix by 2030, and approximately 60 per cent by 2050.
At the announcement on sustainability, Qantas said it had committed an initial A$50m ($53m) towards establishing an Australia-based Saf industry and is calling on all levels of government to also lend support to ensure Australia manufactures the biofuel like Britain, the United States and Europe already are.
United Airlines on Wednesday announced that its corporate venture capital fund has partnered with Houston-based biotech firm Cemvita Factory to commercialise the production of sustainable aviation fuel, with ambitious plans to convert waste carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons for Saf.
On the same day, jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney announced a deal with Air BP on developing the supply of Saf blends of up to 100 per cent for engine testing and research.
For the past 15 years, the airline industry has been working on an alternative to relying on oil to fuel its planes; the latest spike in prices has given that push more momentum. Oil prices are choppy after Russia's invasion of Ukraine and this month they closed in on the US$140 a barrel record of 2008, when there was also a surge of interest in Saf among airlines and their suppliers.
But even at current elevated prices, hydrocarbon-based jet fuel is still much cheaper than the alternative.
Before the most recent spike in oil prices, the cost of Saf was put at around three to five times the price of $US80-a-barrel oil, because of low rates of global production. Travellers have been warned that they will face higher ticket prices when alternative fuel is used more widely.
Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran has said Covid's impact on the airline industry pales into insignificance compared to climate change, but the "wicked problem" of Saf's cost would have to be worked on by airlines, passengers, other industries and governments.
The airline aspires to have 10 per cent of its requirements provided by Saf by 2030.
In Europe, new rules already announced will require minimum levels of Saf. The jet fuel supplied to EU airports will have to contain 2 per cent Saf by 2025, increasing at 5-yearly intervals to reach 63 per cent in 2050. Some shorthaul flights are now banned in France, where trains provide a viable alternative.
United States President Joe Biden last year announced a new sustainable aviation fuel goal to increase the production of Saf to at least 13 billion litres a year by 2030, partly through a tax credit that aims to cut costs and rapidly boost the scale of domestic Saf production.
Before the pandemic, aviation consumed almost 8 per cent of oil products globally in 2019 - almost 7.5 million barrels per day - according to the Bloomberg news agency. As flying recovers, consumption could reach similar levels by 2024.
Chris Brown, KPMG's head of strategy in Europe, says that as long as it is cheaper to offset carbon emissions through trading schemes than through the use of Saf, the firm does not expect sustainable fuel use to meaningfully exceed government-mandated levels.
"Much hinges of course on the market engineering radical reductions in the cost of Saf, such as scalable synthetic fuel that is not reliant on bio feedstock, but whether producers can do this remains to be seen."
In countries where biofuel for all forms of transport is made from grains, there has been a quick rethink as Russia's war threatens food supplies.
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The use of biofuels is seen as critical to New Zealand being able to promote its green credentials. The "flight shaming", or flygskam, movement led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has been competing for attention with seismic world events, but it hasn't gone away.
The Board of Airline Representatives speaks for carriers serving this country and says Saf is going to be an important part of meeting the goal of carbon-neutral growth, as set out in the global Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia).
The board believes a joint initiative between Australia and New Zealand makes sense, as Australia has the scale that this country doesn't.
All options need to be considered for setting up Saf supply here, and it's too early to tell whether that would be through onshore production or developing supply from Australia, said the board's aviation development manager Patrick Whelan.
"Any onshore production capability would definitely require government support," he says.
Overseas-based airlines will adopt Saf and fill up for their inbound legs, and would then like the option of "drop-in" Saf on outbound legs from this country, as long as the rate was internationally competitive.
"International travellers flying the long distances to New Zealand are increasingly going to expect options to manage the environmental impacts, so having a Saf capability here, along with other measures such as offsetting and young aircraft fleets, is going to be increasingly important," says Whelan. "It's going to be critical to New Zealand's clean, green 100% pure reputation."
Sustainable fuel is traditionally derived from biomass, which can consist of animal waste, forest residues, rubbish and other organic materials.
This country has yet to set targets and, despite having supplies of woody waste, the most likely source of alternative aviation fuel feedstock, progress on developing a scaled-up industry here remains slow.
Hydrogen-powered aircraft are also being developed but are years away. And unlike Safs, hydrogen isn't a "drop in" fuel that can be used in existing aircraft and distributed through the jet fuel supply infrastructure.
Battery-powered planes are nearer to being commercially viable, but they will carry fewer passengers and be limited to domestic flights because of their lower power-to-weight ratios.
Waiting for aviation's nuclear-free moment
Five years since aspiring Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared that climate change was her generation's "nuclear-free moment", her Government is still at the feasibility study stage with Saf development. Meanwhile, it is trying to lure big-spending tourists back on polluting longhaul flights.
Energy Minister Megan Woods this week told the Herald the Government was supporting the development and use of sustainable fuels in New Zealand, with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) last year signing a partnership with Air New Zealand to investigate the feasibility of producing Saf in this country, although Cabinet has been warned of the risk of moving too quickly.
Moves include commissioning a feasibility study on Saf production in New Zealand to find out whether it is possible to produce sustainable aviation fuels at scale.
The first stage of this study is expected to be completed in the first half of next year, followed by a more detailed technical assessment.
A Sustainable Biofuels Obligation comes into effect on April 1 next year for land transport, requiring fuel wholesalers to provide a set percentage of biofuels as a part of their fuel supply. Woods said a separate target for aviation would be considered once the findings of the feasibility study were made available.
Mandates for land transport are planned from next year, but MBIE officials recommended to Cabinet that aviation needed more time, with a regime by 2025.
Establishing production of sustainable aviation fuel in New Zealand - or even securing reliable imported supply - requires extensive infrastructure investment at an average cost of about $1 billion, says a Cabinet paper released last year.
The paper quotes a study by the Wood Fibre Futures project, run by the Ministry for Primary Industries, which investigated making biofuel from wood fibre and says scale would be critical for making Saf commercially viable.
"However, [the study] recommended waiting for three to five years to allow other first movers to prove that the technology pathway is commercially viable, technical problems are ironed out and the cost of the plant is lower," the Cabinet paper says.
Climate Change Minister James Shaw this week said the country's heavy reliance on aviation and shipping to connect with the world means sustainable fuels will have to be part of the solution to the emissions associated with long-distance travel and freight "at least in the near term".
An Emissions Reduction Plan setting out how New Zealand will meet its first emissions budget (2022-25) and set the path towards meeting long-term climate targets will be released at the end of May.
"Energy and transport will form core parts of the Emissions Reduction Plan, so you can expect to see big moves in this space come May," says Shaw.
National's energy spokesman Stuart Smith is wary of direct government involvement in any new Saf industry, saying it was best left to the private sector. However, more could have been done by the Government to explore options for the Marsden Pt oil refinery, where biofuel was floated as an option before it was shut down as a processing plant, costing hundreds of jobs.
Smith says private businesses such as Sounds Air had committed to battery-powered planes and these achievable goals were the best way of cutting emissions and luring carbon-conscious travellers to this country.
The risk for Aotearoa
Aviation was responsible for more than 2 per cent of total global emissions - and rising quickly - before the pandemic, despite the widespread use of more efficient planes.
Greenpeace has its own take on reducing those aviation emissions: cut out as much flying as possible.
"We need to rapidly localise our society, and stop flying people and goods across the country and around the world as much," says Christine Rose, lead agriculture campaigner at Greenpeace. "Biofuels are not a solution — they barely reduce aviation emissions at a time when we need to stop burning carbon completely. The Government needs to look at alternatives to travelling by air, as well as investing in rail and other inter-city public transport."
In early 2009, Air New Zealand was one of the first airlines to trial biofuel, using a fuel squeezed from the jatropha plant to power one engine on a Boeing 747. But it has not used it since.
The airline wants to see domestic Saf production in five to seven years, and last year called for the establishment of a public-private advisory body on aviation decarbonisation, to consider and advise on the policy settings needed to make the fuel available in New Zealand.
Chairman of the airline's sustainability advisory panel, Sir Jonathon Porritt, has noted that over the past few years interest in sustainable aviation fuels has gone from a few niche players providing tiny volumes to a rapidly maturing global industry enthusiastically signed up to a target of providing 10 per cent of the volumes required by 2030.
He warned that New Zealand could get left behind.
"As a small country at the end of the world, New Zealand will always be a price-taker. By 2030, it will be the big players in the industry who will be determining that price. The only way of managing that risk is for New Zealand to ensure its own, indigenous Saf capability – and that means taking big decisions in a clear and accountable way over the next couple of years."
While Air New Zealand continues to work with MBIE and other partners on the feasibility of a Saf industry, it also has a joint initiative to research how zero-emissions green hydrogen could be used around the country on turboprop aircraft with about 50 seats.
Under the agreement, Air New Zealand will analyse the impact hydrogen aircraft may have on its network, operations and infrastructure, while Airbus will provide hydrogen aircraft performance requirements and ground operations characteristics.
Airbus plans to develop three shorthaul hydrogen-powered planes that could enter service by 2035, fly as far as 3500km and carry up to 200 passengers.
However, hydrogen-based air travel would require the transformation of airport infrastructure and need vast amounts of low-carbon power to produce hydrogen, which cannot yet compete with conventional jet kerosene in terms of costs.
Air New Zealand is also upbeat about prospects for battery-powered aircraft, with ambitions to start adding them to its regional fleet by the end of the decade.
Preparing for take-off
Qantas last year announced that it will buy blended Saf from next month, helping to reduce its carbon emissions by about 10 per cent on its flights from London.
The airline says it has signed an agreement with a strategic partner to buy 10 million litres of Saf this year, with an option to buy as much as another 10 million litres next year and in 2024 for flights from Heathrow Airport. This would represent up to 15 per cent of Qantas' annual fuel use out of London.
The fuel will be produced with certified bio feedstock from used cooking oil and other waste products. This is then blended with normal jet fuel.
While Qantas and subsidiary Jetstar have flown several demonstration flights using Saf — including a 2018 flight across the Pacific powered by biofuel derived from mustard seeds — this is the first time an Australian airline will buy Saf on an ongoing basis.
Two weeks ago it said it would expand its use of Saf by tapping into supplies in California, to help reduce carbon emissions on its flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Australia. The new deal is for almost 20 million litres of biofuels each year from 2025.
Freight giant DHL Express and Finnish company Neste in March announced that Neste will supply DHL with approximately 320,000 tonnes (400 million litres) of Saf, the largest amount for Neste, which is also interested in the New Zealand market.
Neste is working with Z Energy to provide biofuels to customers in the local market, including sustainable aviation fuel and renewable diesel.