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British Airways to offset some COP26-bound flights

British Airways CEO Sean Doyle argues a ‘global system of sustainable aviation fuels' can help drive down emissions from flying.

British airways CEO Sean Doyle and Martin Thomsen, CEO of BP’s aviation division

British airways CEO Sean Doyle and Martin Thomsen, CEO of BP’s aviation division.

British Airways

British Airways is aiming to offset the lifecycle CO2 from flights between London, Edinburgh and Glasgow by "up to 80 percent" over the course of the upcoming COP26 climate summit, after announcing a new low carbon biofuels supply deal with BP.

The sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) partnership will see British Airways compensate for using traditional, fossil-based jet fuel for all of its flights running between the Edinburgh and Glasgow and London's Heathrow, Gatwick and City airports by purchasing the equivalent amount of lower carbon SAF made from waste cooking oil from BP.

The SAF purchased from BP will not be used to directly fuel any flights transporting COP26 delegates between London and Scotland due to limited supplies of cleaner jet fuels in the U.K., according to British Airways.

However, the airline's CEO Sean Doyle said the deal would help contribute to the creation of a "global system of SAFs."

"SAF can be procured in a system; you don't necessarily transport it to where you fly," he said. "That saves on environmental impacts. Creating a global system of SAFs where airlines can get a credit for buying it is a very efficient way of driving sustainability."

BP head of aviation Martin Thomsen added that the partnership would enable "both companies to show that SAF is a viable reality that needs to be scaled.

"Aviation is a sector that is not easy to decarbonize. This is one small step forward, and we recognize that action must be taken and at pace to make a significant change. Multiple solutions will need to be deployed. We must work together across industry stakeholders including government focusing our efforts on initiatives that can help now and in the future."

Doyle announced the partnership Tuesday with BP alongside several sustainability initiatives at a hangar near Heathrow Airport, where he was flanked by one of the airline's more fuel-efficient aircraft, the A230neo.

SAF can be procured in a system, you don't necessarily transport it to where you fly.

He touted the company's sustainability program, BA Better World, as British Airways' "most important journey yet," arguing the fresh initiatives announced this week would support the company's short-term plan to have a 10 percent blend of SAF across its entire fuel mix by 2030, as well as its broader target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

He also confirmed British Airways was in discussions with a number of its corporate partners with regards to bespoke SAF deals. "Watch this space," Doyle said.

Meanwhile, British Airways also announced that travelers looking to reduce the environmental impact of their flights will have the option to purchase SAF, in addition to carbon offsets.

The scheme, which British Airways claims is a first for a U.K. airline, will give customers the opportunity to pay a premium to purchase the equivalent of 10 percent SAF for their flight. A return flight from London to Hong Kong in business class will cost $33.19 to offset but $209.07 to offset with 10 percent of emissions covered by SAF.

British Airways' head of sustainability, Carrie Harris, told BusinessGreen the scheme was a way to "start a dialogue" about the carbon footprint of flying, noting growing appetite among its corporate and non-corporate customers for solutions that could reduce their carbon footprint.

In the future, she added, British Airways hoped to have access to a supply of SAF with 100 percent lifecycle reduction compared to traditional jet fuel, through its joint venture with UK fuels firm Velocys. The partners are working together to progress plans to build a negative emission sustainable jet fuel refinery in Humberside equipped with carbon capture and storage technology. 

SAFs remains controversial in some circles, however. Advocates have argued the lower-carbon fuels are the most effective means of decarbonizing air travel in the short term and can mobilize investment in the supply chain and create jobs. But critics have long argued that high costs and limited capacity of SAFs, as well as concerns over the availability of sustainable feedstocks, mean jet biofuels risk becoming a distraction from the need to curb demand for flights, particularly short-haul journeys that can be replaced by greener, land-based forms of transport.

As such, British Airways' plan to offset flights between London and COP26 is likely to attract criticism from some climate campaigners, as the journey can also be undertaken by train. Indeed, the move contrasts with the separate launch today of a new, permanent low-cost train service linking London and Scotland, expected to begin running this autumn, offering a direct, lower carbon challenge to the market for short-haul flights for the journey.

However, British Airways believes SAFs are critical to the future of travel, and scaling such fuels is one of the three key pillars of its net-zero strategy, alongside ramping up investments in clean technologies and carbon offsets. The company is aiming to offer hydrogen-powered flight by the beginning of next decade and expects to put the first SAF in its planes next year through a partnership with U.S. fuels firm Lanzajet next year, Doyle — the firm's CEO — confirmed this week.

Doyle argued it was important government turned its attention to the SAF agenda, alongside more policy support and investment to also help scale the emerging hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and nature-based solutions markets for aviation. "We need to get investment in SAF," he said. "New plants need seed funding, given that the first couple plants are higher risk for investors. We need to create price certainty for investors. The demand is there, the technology is there but we need infrastructure investment."

This week's event also saw British Airways showcase a number of the initiatives it has introduced to improve sustainability, including switching from diesel to renewably powered electric pushback machines and introducing lighter seats and trollies in its aircraft.

Moreover, the company announced the launch of a new BA Better World Community Fund, which Doyle said was aimed at protecting the planet, protecting communities and driving responsible business. Doyle said it would also "help communities affected by the [climate] crisis."

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