COMMENT: At an industrial park in Heroya, south of Oslo, Norway, a site has been cleared for the construction by Norsk E-fuel of a factory that will produce the world's first climate-neutral jet fuel on a large scale.
By 2026 the plant will be producing 100 million litres of aviation kerosene a year, enough to cut emissions by 200,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.
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Although the scale is new, the building blocks of the technology are not. Electricity from hydropower (in commercial use since the 1880s) is passed through water to produce hydrogen, a process discovered in 1800. The hydrogen is reacted with carbon dioxide in variants of the Fischer–Tropsch process, widely used since the 1920s, to produce liquid fuels including jet kerosene.
The carbon dioxide supply is the most innovative part – most commercial production today comes from burning fossil fuels, which is of course not climate neutral. Instead, it will be captured directly from the air by Climeworks, a company that has been doing just that since 2017.
This synthetic jet fuel, called Power-to-Liquid or e-fuel, is already approved for use in aeroplanes.
Why the delay?
If it's all so simple, and the technology is ready to go, why isn't it being used already?
From an economic point of view, it comes down to cost. The industry needs to grow to achieve economies of scale, and so that costs can reduce over time by learning from experience. That's the standard picture of technological spread, from phones to solar panels.
But it can't get started, because it can't compete on price with fossil fuels. Kerosene is cheap, and even under optimistic assumptions on the availability of cheap renewable electricity, e-fuels will still cost twice as much by 2050.
However, we can't wait for 2050. Until Covid-19, global aviation was growing strongly, having doubled in the past decade. It was projected by the industry body IATA to triple further by 2040.
In fact, by 2050 aviation could be using all of the available carbon emissions available under a 1.5C scenario. Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement will require strong action on aviation well before 2050.
This growth has been fuelled by a concerted effort from the aviation and tourist industries, supported by governments (who often own airlines and airports and see aviation as a tool for growth) and international bodies like the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation and the World Tourism Organisation.
As a result, jet fuel is untaxed, international airfares attract no sales tax or carbon tax, and international aviation emissions are not yet part of national targets under the Paris Agreement.
Furthermore, modelling by Paul Peeters of Breda University finds that standard methods of reducing demand, such as very steep carbon taxes and ticket surcharges, can't do the job by themselves. Economic growth and the increasing comfort and convenience of long-distance air travel will still lead to overall growth.
In addition, the industry is likely to vigorously resist any extra charges, or indeed any attempt to reduce demand at all. They can do this quite easily because positive action requires international cooperation.
In an impasse like this, something has to break. E-fuels offer a way forward. They increase the cost of travel and reduce emissions at the source. But to expand beyond their first trial facility, they need help.
Climate advocates, some tourist bodies, and the e-fuel industry are calling for a tax on jet fuel, a mandated e-fuel requirement (for example, a 10 per cent blend by 2030), and direct investment by governments. Support for large quantities of renewable electricity is also needed.
Climate advocates might be wary at this point, and they would be right. Aviation, like many other industries, has long been guilty of selling stopgaps and technological smoke-and-mirrors "solutions".
For decades these have failed to come to pass, because there was not enough incentive from industry, governments and the public to push them forward. Some have been a deliberate delaying tactic: leave us alone, we've got this. Meanwhile, most of the money goes into developing marginally more efficient fossil fuel-burning machines and promoting growth.
So far, a key stumbling block has been the lack of widespread acceptance in the industry that emissions need to start decreasing now, and to eventually be eliminated. The challenges are not really technological or economic, they're social.
An industry in crisis
The aviation industry is now in an unparalleled crisis, although it will surely survive in some form. The industry is vital to New Zealand.
Although we may not return to the days when 33 airlines flew here, Air New Zealand itself may well emerge relatively stronger. It's less indebted than many airlines, it has long been focused on sustainability, and it has government backing and a strong domestic market.
But, whatever the pace of the recovery, environmental concerns about aviation emissions are not going to go away. New Zealand's potential for renewable energy and our early steps towards green hydrogen (made from water and renewable electricity) put us in a promising position to develop e-fuels.
The Covid-19 pandemic gives us a breathing space, a time to reflect and to plan. A dangerously unsustainable industry can acknowledge that it needs to set out on a better path. We can ensure that future investments and bailouts lead to genuine emission reductions and that aviation plays a fair part in a more balanced and sustainable world.
Paul Callister is a senior associate at the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. Robert McLachlan is a professor in the School of Fundamental Sciences, Massey University, and writes on climate change at The Conversation and at planetaryecology.org. Callister and McLachlan are founding members of the group Fly-Less Kiwis, which shares research and policy ideas regarding aviation decarbonisation options.