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Claim that new fuel from waste will massively cut flying emissions is dangerously misleading

16th March, 2021

A press story yesterday[1] claimed that US scientists had found a way to ‘massively reduce carbon emissions from flying’. In fact, though, the ‘up to 165%’ emissions reduction claimed by the report authors arises largely from supposed savings as a result of preventing methane emissions that would otherwise arise from landfill, together with ‘carbon credit incentives’ for using energy sources other than fossil fuels. When the fuel is burnt in an aircraft the emissions it generates would actually be higher, the authors admit, than from burning conventional fossil fuels, as a result of its slightly higher carbon content[2].

Methane generated by rotting landfill waste is a powerful greenhouse gas. Cutting food waste, diverting biodegradable rubbish away from landfill sites and putting in place methane capture technologies can all help to tackle these emissions. For the UK to achieve net zero, these steps need to be delivered in addition to – not instead of – the decarbonisation of aviation. 

The BBC story was published the day before the UK Government launched new funding to spur the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuel from waste[3]. There will also be a consultation this year on potential mandates for the purchase of ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ with a view to stimulating the market for these fuels, which are currently significantly more expensive than kerosene (which remains untaxed). 

AEF deputy director Cait Hewitt said:

There seems to be some very dodgy carbon accounting behind the claim that this fuel will cut emissions from flying. Genuine answers to the aviation emissions problem are in fact still few and far between.

Any government incentives for use of alternative fuels for aviation will need very clear and transparent guidelines to ensure that they actually cut aviation emissions, to avoid this kind of accounting smokescreen in future. Including international aviation emissions in carbon budgets would be one way to help ensure proper accountability for this sector, which has so far fallen through the net when it comes to climate policy.

In the meantime, cutting back on flying is easily the best way of reducing aviation emissions.

Between 1990 and 2019 emissions from international flights departing UK airports increased by 138%. In the year the UK will host the global COP meeting, green groups have highlighted the need for government action on aviation emissions[4].


Contact: Tim Johnson // Cait Hewitt

Notes to editor:

[1] Climate change: Jet fuel from waste ‘dramatically lowers’ emissions

[2] See page 24 

[3] Jet Zero launches £15 million competition to reduce aviation emissions

[4] Open letter: Government must include aviation and shipping in net zero legislation