British Airways and their recent commitments to Sustainable Aviation Fuel: What does this mean for sustainability in the aviation industry?

With the market for flights and holidays becoming more popular with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, there is increasing pressure for airlines to accelerate the transition to net-zero aviation, in line with the outcomes of COP26. This is particularly crucial as flights in 2019 produced 915 million tonnes of CO2.

Currently, customers can pay to carbon offset their flights, by subsidising tree planting for example, but this can be a costly and voluntary addition, which therefore does not guarantee large-scale sustainable progress. Whilst some airlines like EasyJet have made carbon offsetting available at no extra cost to customers, British Airways (BA) have gone beyond just offsetting to achieve net-zero carbon goals.

In their long-term commitment to lowering harmful emissions, British Airways have become the first airline in the world to start using Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) produced on a commercial scale in the UK. SAF comprises a clean alternative to fossil jet fuel. It is produced from sustainable resources like waste by-products, which have already had the carbon released, including plant matter, food waste residue from agriculture, and non-fossil CO2. Reusing these waste products both alleviates the typical carbon intensity of aviation processes and eliminates problems for safe waste management concerning these materials. SAF can be used in all existing aircraft, with little or no modifications, so the aviation industry does not have to invest in new infrastructure to facilitate this sustainable transition. This fuel therefore demonstrates a vital direction available to governments and the transport industry to accelerate efforts towards decarbonising travel.

Although SAF has been used since 2008 by other airlines like Air New Zealand, British Airways is aiming to use it on a much larger scale than others have previously by signing a multi-year SAF agreement with Phillips 66. This is a large step in their net-zero commitments as this purchase in itself is sufficient to reduce lifecycle emissions by almost 100,000 tonnes and does so by up to 80% compared to petroleum-based fuels. This is because the production of SAF itself absorbs CO2. SAF also contains fewer impurities, such as sulphur, which enables a greater reduction in sulphur dioxide and particulate matter emissions than present technology has achieved. From this, British Airways have estimated a third of emission reductions will come from switching to sustainable aviation fuel, meeting 50% of the fuel needs by 2050.

Image Credit: Fulcrum BioEnergy

Commenting on the news Sean Doyle, British Airways’ chairman and chief executive, said:

“Our supplies of SAF from Phillips 66 Limited will allow us to progress with our ambitious roadmap to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner and will play a role in our commitment, as part of International Airlines Group (IAG), to power 10 percent of flights with SAF by 2030”.

However, there are several risks associated with SAF. It generates high capital costs for corporations and creates implications for the technology used and issues in terms of feedstock availability and local supply chains. The fuel is also in short supply, with only around 0.04% of SAF need to contribute to emission reduction targets currently available. While this means the green fuel can only be used on selected flights with wider support needed to scale up the market, it signifies a transformative move in improving the UK’s energy supply reliance. Still, these risks and problems can disincentivise private investment, making BA’s dedication to lowering emissions more notable.  

In a volatile market, where airlines focus on profit maximisation, it appears British Airways stand alone in its shift to a genuine motivation for the environment through aviation impacts. 

As airlines face major economic hits from the Covid crisis, many airlines do not consider this shift as a priority, particularly with rising oil prices. However, British Airways are focusing on forming partnerships with other airlines to maximise positive environmental attitudes, demonstrating large-scale motivation to achieve sustainable aviation. BA’s partnership with Velocys involves building a plant in Humberside which will convert household and commercial waste into SAF and their partnership with LanzaJet provides BA with SAF from a plant in the USA, which will help power a number of BA’s flights by the end of 2022. BA’s parent company, International Airlines Group, also contribute via their investment of $400 million into the SAF department over the next 20 years.

British Airways History:

For a long time, British Airways’ have dedicated themselves as a sustainably motivated airline. Since 1990, British Airways have committed to lowering harmful emissions, particularly by improving fuel efficiency by 28%, cutting over 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere. In 2020, British Airways appointed Carrie Harris as the new Head of Sustainability, reflecting the importance of sustainability for their airline. They took delivery of the SAF, enough to power all flights from London to Scotland for the duration of COP26, with their first transatlantic flight operating on 35% SAF fuel. They also announced the opportunity for customers to purchase sustainable aviation fuel in combination with high-quality carbon offsets, which reduce their carbon footprint. Not only have they since been dedicated to implementing SAF into their aircrafts, they have also created a target to remove more than 700 tonnes of single-use plastic onboard its services, amounting to more than a quarter of a billion individual items of plastic. In 2020, British Airways retired its Boeing 747 aircraft early and replaced them with more modern models such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, which are between 25-40% more fuel-efficient. Collectively, their efforts in making their approaches more sustainable both onboard, in their workforce and in the fuel tank, show how earnest they are to advocate for ‘green’ and sustainable travel.

In 2020, Carrie Harris, Head of Sustainability for British Airways, stated:

“As we head into 2021, we’ll be taking a fresh look at all we do to ensure sustainability is embedded in our culture, our operation, and our customers’ experience; from technological solutions such as zero-emissions hydrogen aircraft and sustainable aviation fuels for the medium to long-term to operational efficiency and carbon offset and removal projects in the short-term. We’ll also be focused on improving diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing within the organisation and ensuring we contribute meaningfully to the communities where we operate in the UK and around the world.”

The extent to which they’ve achieved this is highlighted in their ‘BA for a Better World’ campaign, in their 2021 Sustainability Report, check it out here:

Image Credit: BriYYZ

Progress thus far:

  • In February 2021, British Airways (BA) invested in SAF technology provider LanzaJet and agreed to purchase SAF from its U.S. plant in 2022.
  • In September 2021, BA led the first-ever BA flight powered directly from SAF, teaming up with NATS, Heathrow, Glasgow Airport, Airbus, and BP to demonstrate how the industry is moving towards a Perfect Flight using today’s decarbonisation technology. Through this, BA reduced CO2 emissions by 62% compared to the original Perfect Flight more than a decade ago
  • In November 2021, BA sourced SAF for all flights between London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh during COP26.
  • BA also flew the first transatlantic flight powered by SAF at a 35% blend.
  • BA introduced a global first with customers now able to offset international flights and purchase SAF from their seats on board.
  • In December 2021, BA announced a new partnership with Phillips 66 to offtake SAF from its Humber refinery.

British Airways also support sustainable community initiatives through their ‘BA Better World Community Fund’. Most recently supporting the ‘Greener Community at Cupids Green’, which raised funds for community gardens in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. This initiative creates an ‘edible’ sustainable approach, where the local community can plant, grow, and share food amongst their society, extending from a sustainable transportation focus. You can see much of their progress in their aid so far here:

It is evident that British Airways, as a company, strive for sustainable travel and communities. They make sustainability integral to many of their actions, as reflected by their leadership in utilising SAF in the UK and inspiring other airlines to make similar transitions for a better, greener future. 

About the Author: Isobel Sennett is a Senior Contributor for WILD magazine and a second year student studying Human Geography and the Environment.

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