Skip to content

Royal Society report finds no clear net zero alternative to jet fuel: AEF response

28th February, 2023

The AEF has responded to a new report from the Royal Society on the resource requirements and environmental impacts of ‘net-zero’ fuels. 

The Royal Society researchers looked at the costs, life-cycle impacts, infrastructure requirements and outstanding research questions across four fuel types, green hydrogen, biofuels (energy crops and waste), ammonia and synthetic fuels (efuels).

The researchers found that producing enough sustainable aviation fuel to supply the UK’s net-zero ambitions, even if flying is kept at today’s levels, would require enormous quantities of agricultural land or renewable electricity. The findings are even more stark when you consider the additional fuel that will be needed to meet the Government’s Jet Zero prediction of a 70% increase in passenger numbers above their pre-pandemic high by 2050.

The study estimates that meeting existing UK aviation demand entirely with energy crops would require around half of UK agricultural land,hile producing sufficient green hydrogen fuel would require 2.4 – 3.4 times the UK’s 2020 renewable (wind and solar) electricity generation, which is likely to be in high demand in other areas. 

Cait Hewitt, Policy Director for AEF, said:

“While government ministers claim that ‘guilt free flying’ is just around the corner, the report lays out very clearly just how challenging it will be to switch to alternative energy sources for aviation.

“Airlines and airports, having failed to bring any zero carbon technologies to the market in the decades since the climate challenge became clear, have now begun claiming that a ramp-up of so-called Sustainable Aviation Fuels is going to take the carbon out of flying. 

“In fact biofuels, including fuels made from waste, release as much CO2 when they’re burned as kerosene. Any net savings come from the use of removed or recycled carbon in the production process. Careful analysis is needed about the ‘lifecycle’ impacts of alternative fuels because, as the report highlights, some alternative options are so energy intensive to produce that they end up generating more CO2 over their lifetime than fossil fuel.  

“The elephant in the room here is of, course, the need to fly less. One area that would really benefit now from some Government-funded research is how to deliver better standards of living, continued connectivity for businesses, and sustainable employment for the aviation workforce without the continued growth of flying. Tax cuts for domestic tourism and leisure and promotion of alternatives to in-person business flights would be good places to start.

“While it’s right for the aviation industry to be progressing rapidly with research and development for zero emission flight, as today’s report shows there will be no easy answers, and none that are able to deliver green flights any time soon.”

The story has been reported in The Guardian, BBC, Independent, Sky News. and Irish Times.