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Flying on 100% sustainable fuel by 2030? Boeing announces development plans

The aviation sector has the climate goal of cutting carbon emissions by 50 percent by mid-century. Sustainable aviation fuels could be one solution to reduce emissions.

Plane seen in sky near Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, Canada

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash.

Boeing has announced plans to begin producing commercial aircraft capable of flying on 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by the end of the decade.

The U.S. plane manufacturer said the development of planes that can run entirely on SAFs would be critical if the carbon-intensive aviation sector is to meet its climate goal of cutting carbon emissions by 50 percent by mid-century.

Boeing said it would work to determine what engineering changes would be required to ensure that future airplanes have the option of flying exclusively on sustainable fuels, which can be produced from a variety of feedstocks, including plants, agricultural and household waste, and even industrial gases.

As the world's largest aerospace company and the leading provider of commercial airplanes, Boeing's commitment to ensure its fleet is biofuel compliant is likely to have a significant ripple effect across the broader aviation industry, estimated to be responsible for between 2 and 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Boeing commercial airplanes president and chief executive Stan Deal said SAFs were "the safest and most measurable solution" to curb aviation sector emissions in the short term. "We're committed to working with regulators, engine companies and other key stakeholders to ensure our airplanes and eventually our industry can fly entirely on sustainable jet fuels," he said.

Sustainable aviation fuels are proven, used every day, and have the most immediate and greatest potential to reduce carbon emissions in the near and long term when we work together as an industry.

Current fuel specifications permit blends up of to 50 percent sustainable fuels with conventional jet fuel, a limit Boeing said it would work to raise over the coming decade through collaboration with regulators and industry.

Advocates argue that SAFs offer the fastest way to cut emissions across the carbon-intensive aviation sector in the short-term, while also providing a means of mobilizing investment in the supply chain and creating jobs as part of a green economy. Boeing was among a number of major players across the aviation supply chain that called on U.K. and EU governments to introduce a sustainable aviation fuel mandate from 2025 that would require a minimum share of SAF to be blended into traditional jet fuel.

However, critics have long argued that high costs and limited capacity, 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 and step up investment in zero emission technologies, such as electric and fuel cell aircraft.

Others want to see the market for SAFs grow rapidly, but warn that it is unlikely to prove a "silver bullet" for tackling the aviation industry's emissions. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) estimates that green fuels will meet only 10 percent of aviation fuel demand in the U.K. by 2050. 

But Boeing chief sustainability officer Chris Raymond emphasized that sustainable aviation fuels were the best tool the aviation industry had to decarbonize. "Sustainable aviation fuels are proven, used every day, and have the most immediate and greatest potential to reduce carbon emissions in the near and long term when we work together as an industry," he said.

Boeing stressed that it had proved that fossil fuel free flight was possible in 2018, when it worked with FedEx express to deliver the world's first 100 percent SAF-powered flight.

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