Net-zero long-haul flights could be coming soon

The UK government is aiming for carbon-neutral transatlantic travel – but there are a few catches

Sophie Dickinson
Written by
Sophie Dickinson
Freelance contributor
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Ross Parmly via Unsplash

A lot of us feel really, really guilty about flying. We know that our carbon footprint is increased every time we take a flight; we know that train travel is a much better way to get around. But what if it didn’t have to be that way?

The UK government has just revealed plans for an experimental, carbon-neutral transatlantic flight. In theory, that means that future trips across the pond could be totally green. The concept has come from the Jet Zero Council, a group working towards making aviation carbon-neutral by 2050.

It’s thought that this particular scheme is likely to achieve net-zero emissions with a combination of sustainable fuels and offsetting. It would revolutionise air travel, and seriously move the industry closer to its ambitious environmental goals.

That’s the good news. But if you look a bit closer, there’s not much new here. The first commercial flights powered by sustainable fuels (usually made with used cooking oils) took off in 2011. The technology is, sort of, in place – but airlines aren’t utilising it. Sustainable aviation fuel accounted for only 0.1 percent of all jet fuel used in 2019.

Companies are reluctant to use sustainable fuel because it’s much, much more expensive than using standard crude oil. As a result, production currently isn’t happening on a wide enough scale, as there’s no market. And projections for brand new  ‘power to liquid’ fuels – a combination of hydrogen extracted from water and CO2 – have costs at three times the current price of oil.

Carbon offsetting also brings its own problems: the Friends of the Earth charity calls it a ‘dangerous distraction’ from meaningful action on the climate crisis.

All this is a serious limitation to plans for environmentally friendly flights between the UK and the US. Sure, they can happen in principle – and it’s a good sign that legislative bodies are taking an interest. But if the cost ultimately lies with the industry, it’s going to take serious change before your old cooking oil is powering jumbo jets. In the meantime, we reckon you should look for other ways to make your getaway more green.

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