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Greenwashing in the Aviation Industry 

In an era where environmental conservation and combatting man-made climate change has become paramount, industries worldwide are under scrutiny for their sustainability practices. The aviation industry among them has faced increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint. However, one of the leading concepts to accomplish this, that of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), hailed by many as the saviour of the aviation sector’s environmental impact, warrants closer examination. 


On 28 November 2023 Virgin Airlines made history by operating the first commercial transatlantic journey on 100 percent SAF, called Flight100. The flight flew from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s JFK Airport. The SAF which powered the flight was made from used vegetable oil and animal fats, collected from various places including McDonald’s restaurants and food processing plants, bypassing the need to create new material for jet-fuel. Leaders in the initiative for carbon reduction praised the flight, claiming that it was a major step in the industry’s progression towards more sustainable operations. They noted that some forms of SAF can reduce the emissions of a previously fossil-fuel powered jet by more than 90 percent. 


Despite the overwhelmingly positive reception, many still criticised flight100’s green claims as well. Virgin’s most recent green flight is not the public display of sustainability efforts the company has produced for the public. In 2008, one of their aircraft flew from London to Amsterdam using fuel which was partly made using palm oil and coconuts. Although the mission was successful, its claims to long-term sustainability were negligible. To have powered the flight on 100 percent coconut oil would have taken 3 million coconuts. By such standards the global coconut crop would only be able to sustain Heathrow airport alone for a few weeks. The Airline’s latest flight claims to have fixed these concerns, as the fuel is no longer made exclusively from crops, now incorporating waste products. However, this fuel is not sustainable either. One of Virgin Airlines’ suppliers, a BioForming company based in Wisconsin called Virent, creates fuels from sugar feedstocks mixed with agricultural waste, wood, and used cooking oil. Despite its initial mirage as a sustainable operation, by growing crops for fuel, Virent and other companies use land, water, and other resources which result in increased greenhouse gas emission from changed land patterns, air and water pollution, as well as economic impacts such as increased food costs. 


In addition to these drawbacks, sourcing these SAF feedstocks introduces another falselayer to aviation’s sustainability initiatives. A report from the US Department of Agriculture alleged that some trade in SAF feedstocks may be fraudulent, as their initial sources are unknown. Renewable fuel statistics from the government of the United Kingdom in 2022 show that more than 80 percent of the 26 million litres of SAF supplied to airlines operating in the UK was made from imported ‘used cooking oil’. However, most of this oil came from various countries in Asia, where its authenticity has been questioned. This sparked a fear that virgin palm oil, grown on plantations which contribute largely to tropical deforestation, is being passed off as used oil. Waste oils used in aircraft fuel are categorised as renewable fuels which do not damage the environment under the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO). Therefore these inauthentic exports of oil would benefit these companies financially, as this kind of oil earns double credit under this scheme. When asked by OpenDemocracy where it sourced its oil, Virgin Airlines referred questions to one of its SAF suppliers, Neste. Neste reported that 25 percent of used cooking oil used by the airline came from  China and Indonesia, 21 percent  from the UK, and the remainder from Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, and Italy. Even if this cooking oil is truly sustainably sourced, it can indirectly worsen deforestation in its countries of origin as they export oil which would have otherwise been used, turning instead to palm oil to meet domestic demand. 


Further fueling this trade, legislations are being passed in various countries mandating a minimum usage of SAF to increase sustainability efforts within the aviation industry. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed in US congress and signed into law by President Biden in 2022 set targets for SAF production at 3 billion gallons in 2030 and 35 billion by 2050. However, this only places more pressure on wildlife, agricultural sectors, and food prices in the United States, leading to climate drawbacks. In the UK, the government’s SAF mandate will require 10 percent of jet fuel supplied in the country to come from ‘sustainable sources’. However, in order to ensure this, the government plans to rely partly on voluntary certification schemes, despite the 2016 ruling by the EU Court of Auditors that these cannot guarantee that the cooking oil imported into Europe is actually used. A 2021 investigation by Greenpeace found that the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) relies heavily on self-reporting rather than verification. The findings produced by the investigation state: “this appears as a ‘tick in the box’ scheme that helps to greenwash commodities for biofuels… Any certification scheme applied to crop-based bioenergy is thus effectively a greenwash”. Greenpeace upholds that because of this self-certification, companies are able to put increased pressure on the land and climate in their production, bypassing the government's initial design to truly source these products sustainably. Even if all used cooking oils were traceable, verified, and sustainably sourced, the International Council on Clean Transportation claims that it is still not reasonable to use them as they are needed in other sectors, and doing so would put an economic and long-term strategic strain on them. 


While Sustainable Aviation Fuel initially presents a promising step towards reducing the aviation industry's carbon footprint, challenges in sourcing and sustainability remain evident. The reliance on feedstocks like agricultural waste and cooking oils raises concerns such as deforestation and fraudulent sourcing. Legislative mandates for increased SAF usage may exacerbate these issues. To address aviation's environmental impact, alternative green methods for cargo and transportation such as electric aircraft and hydrogen-powered systems should be explored and robust certification schemes for biofuels are essential to ensure sustainability should be put into place, ensuring a unified effort towards innovation and responsible resource management in aviation, paving the way towards a greener future in air transportation.

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