Sustainability expert – E-Fuels the only realistic way for the industry to reach net zero

A panel at World Travel Market (WTM) in London, saw a leading expert in the sustainability and transport space call E-Fuels the only realistic way for airlines to reach net-zero.

Professor Paul Peeters from the Centre for Sustainability, Tourism and Transport at Breda University for Applied Sciences, said that there was only a “narrow path” for the industry to decarbonize and meet the 2050 net zero target.

Dr Peeters was taking part in a WTM session called  “Decarbonising the Travel and Tourism Sector”, moderated by BBC presenter Tanya Beckett.

Dr Peeters started by reeling off a long list of measures that the industry was trying to roll out to reduce its carbon footprint right down to more efficient air traffic control management.

“The problem is none of those are good enough.  And even together, they won’t be.”

As a result, Dr Peeters told the panel that progess will largely be dependent on E-Fuels, in particular Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).

The issue of existing aircraft flying for decades

The reason, according to Dr Peeters is the existing airline fleet of 26,000 aircraft, which were designed to work on kerosene based fuels.  Today, there are aircraft being produced that operate in this way, and their lifespan could easily be 30 years, which would take us up to the 2050 net zero target date.

That means that even if aircraft using hydrogen fuel cells come into service, thousands of these older planes will still be flying.

As an introductory paper from the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) explains, SAF works with existing aircraft, with no retrofitting needed.

At the same time Dr Peeters highlighted a number of issues with SAF.  First of all there is of course capacity.  Then the production methods must also be carbon neutral, and the process ‘circular.’

CORSIA comes under attack

Both Dr Peeters and another panel member, Harold Goodwin, Responsible Tourism Advisor for WTM, criticized the aviation industry for, as they saw it, not moving fast enough.

Dr Peeters said of the industry, “they could have started twenty years ago”, and seemed to lay some of the blame for the perceived inaction on ICAO and for what he saw as its closeness to the industry.  In particular, he criticized the CORSIA programme for only addressing growth and for allowing measures such as off-setting.

In the panel, Dr Peeters urged consumers to avoid airlines only relying on CORSIA for their sustainability initiatives and to say, “a CORSIA airline is not my airline.”

Dr Peeters put forward the possibility of limiting aviation growth to the availability of E-Fuels,  so that “the volume of aviation becomes a function of how much of that fuel (e-fuel) you can produce, and not the other way around.” 

The idea of consumer pressure was also picked up by Harold Goodwin, who felt that there are not enough sustainable flying options available, “The customer wants to purchase a trip which is guilt free, but in reality the aviation industry is not offering me the choice I want”

Goodwin pointed to the example of supermarkets who had become more attuned to food quality issues following consumer demand.

The two other panellists were Dr. Suzanne Etti, Environmental Impact Specialist for Intrepid Travel and Claire Whitely, Senior Sustainability Manager, Sustainable Hospitality Alliance.

Dr Etti said that “being carbon neutral is no longer enough” and talked about changes that Intrepid Travel is making along the whole supply chain.  Dr Etti gave the example of moving tours onto trains as opposed to flights on the domestic legs of tours in countries such as China (pre Covid).

Meanwhile, Claire Whitely cited an IHG study showing that hotels could by themselves lower their carbon footprint by 75% through measures such as retrofitting the heating and ventilation systems.

(Top image via Rolls Royce, which was recently part of a 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel flight involving a 747)

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