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Greenwashed Aviation Fuels Vie to Fly the Fitful Skies
Air Canada and its new fuel supply partner are promising too much, too fast, with technologies that can’t yet deliver. It's just another day at the office for the aviation industry.
The next time you book a flight, you can rest assured that Canada’s flagship airline has got your back in the struggle to make air travel compatible with a net-zero climate future—according to the latest bit of greenwash from Air Canada and its new “sustainable aviation fuels” partner, Air Company.
This is one of those moments when I would love to be proven wrong, and if that’s the way this story goes, I’ll be the first to own up and celebrate. But with the information available so far, there’s little to distinguish the PR materials by New York-based Air Company from the waves of overheated, unfulfilled promises we’ve seen from the commercial airline industry, tracing back 14 years if not longer.
It may be just a bit unfair to Air Company to pick on their release when a week rarely goes by without editors receiving at least one breakthrough announcement from a wannabe sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) provider. Here’s the language that caught my eye (italics are mine).
From the original promo email July 20:
Air Company is announcing a strategic collaboration with Canada’s largest airline—Air Canada—to lay the groundwork for delivery of AIRMADE™ SAF to Canada and begin the process of exploring the potential development of the SAF in Canada.
From the Business Wire media release the same day:
The collaboration aims to accelerate the development of power-to-liquid sustainable aviation fuel (PtL SAF) in various North American markets by 2025.
From the Reuters news report that resulted:
Canada's largest airline has inked a deal seeking to bring in more lower-carbon aviation fuel from green hydrogen and carbon dioxide by 2025.
It’s a truly remarkable achievement: In the span of one (apparently very productive) business day, Air Canada and its new supplier managed the stratospheric leap from “laying the groundwork” and “exploring the potential development”, to “aiming to accelerate their efforts” by 2025, to fielding a finished product in just two years. The product is a notoriously difficult fuel that developers have been trying and mostly failing to deliver since the first test flight in 2008.
Not Just Any Aviation Fuel
And the two companies aren’t just pitching any old sustainable aviation fuel. The media release is thin on details, referring only to a “unique power-to-liquid pathway” that relies on a “proprietary catalyst” to deliver a 94% reduction in aviation emissions. But Reuters says Air Company delivers an SAF “by taking power from renewable electricity to produce green hydrogen, which then combines with captured carbon dioxide.”
Which means that, to keep all the various promises in the media materials, the companies will have to:
• Secure a source of renewable electricity…
• …then line up up financing, clear any regulatory hurdles, and build the project…
• …then combine that hydrogen with captured carbon from an industry with tiny global production numbers and serious economic and technical challenges that seems ever less likely to scale up without massive taxpayer subsidies…
The published quotes from the two business partners weren’t quite so time-bound as the lead paragraph that drew readers deeper into the story.
“We have a grand vision for deploying our technology worldwide and we always look for partners to join us in this endeavour,” said Air Company CEO and co-founder Gregory Constantine.
“We remain focused on seeking innovative, long-term, sustainable GHG emissions reduction solutions for aviation,” said Air Canada President and CEO Michael Rousseau, in a quote that pivoted around a 2050 net-zero target rather than the 2025 milestone that led off the narrative.
But the release still raised a series of questions that Air Company doesn’t seem inclined to answer just yet.
Enquiring Minds Should Want to Know
Every good idea has to start somewhere, and it’s rare but not unheard of in the climate and energy space for important developments to come from unexpected places. So before deciding whether to treat this story as breaking news or a snarky opinion piece, I sent a series of questions to SBS Comms, the self-described “boutique communications agency” that circulated the July 20 promo email.
(In its LinkedIn profile, SBS says its acronym originally stood for “Strange Brew Strategies”, which might accidentally make it the perfect PR shop for a client trying to produce aviation fuel from an ethanol feedstock.)
Your enquiring reporter wanted to know:
• What feedstocks will this process use, and from what geographic sources? (I should have asked about electricity supplies as well as feedstocks.)
• What quantities of fuel is Air Canada buying, and with what target dates?
• What’s the process for verifying sustainability and long-term availability of supply?
• When the release talks about “accelerating” the development of PtL by 2025, does that mean there will be fuel in use on planes within two years?
• If not, what’s the target date for pilot testing, then for full implementation?
• What will Air Canada pay for the “acceleration” phase through 2025, up to and including pilot testing, and for full implementation?
• How much more will Air Canada passengers pay for the change in fuel, either in actual dollars or as a percentage of ticket price?
Constantine’s reply was informative, but not detailed enough to justify the hype in the media release.
“Air Company’s carbon utilization technology is source agnostic in the carbon dioxide used as a feedstock and we’ve proven that out in different scenarios, including when we won our XPRIZE award,” he wrote in an email. “Currently, we use biogenic CO2 from sources like ethanol plants, capturing CO2 before it is released into the atmosphere.”
“Because we use green hydrogen—created through hydrolysis powered by renewable energy—and carbon dioxide, our feedstocks are practically limitless,” he added. “Importantly, we have created a single-step process for transforming captured CO2 into carbon-negative alcohols and fuels that lock long-term efficiency around energy and cost.”
As for Air Company’s target dates for implementation, “pilot testing has been ongoing since before last September, when we announced the first ever test flight with 100% unblended jet fuel made from CO2 in tandem with the U.S. Air Force.” The release cites JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic as the other airlines on Air Company’s client list.
Aviation’s Track Record for Greenwash
Air Company and Air Canada can’t and shouldn’t be held responsible for their industry’s wider track record on climate and decarbonization. But it’s hard to take the announcement seriously when the headline target date is non-sensical, the details are sketchy, and the whole story echoes with a wider history of aviation greenwashing dating back to at least October, 2009.
That was the moment when the International Air Transport Association (IATA) presented its sustainability plan to then-United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon. I covered the story as a columnist for Boston-based MeetingsNet, one of the side gigs that helped me stay connected with journalism, sustainability, and climate while I worked in the meetings and events industry.
Looking back, I’m almost but not quite embarrassed at the deferential tone of the piece—except that, to this day, I know that climate advocates within that industry can only get any traction with the tiniest, most incremental interventions. I wrote that:
I’m not sure IATA fully realizes that its plan substitutes hope for realism, committing to targets that will be unattainable without an almost unimaginable leap in fuel and aircraft technology. On balance, I hope not, because I would prefer to believe that they’re misleading themselves rather than setting out to mislead the rest of us.
Unfortunately, the results are the same either way—for the airlines’ carbon footprint, and for the perception of the industry’s climate challenge, both within the meetings and travel sector and by the traveling public.
In the Air Company/Air Canada announcement, it’s so easy to see a reflection of that early, largely successful attempt at greenwash. “Today, we have taken a major step forward by committing to a global cap on our emissions in 2020,” IATA CEO Giovanni Bisignani had told an industry audience in June, 2009. “After this date, aviation’s emissions will not grow even as demand increases. Airlines are the first global industry to make such a bold commitment.”
How to Spell ‘Procrastination’
So aviation was touting its plan to become a “carbon-neutral” industry with a pledge to increase emissions for another 11 years before capping them at a newer, higher level. IATA was calling for a 1.5% annual improvement in fuel efficiency but projecting a 5% annual increase in air travel, so that “carbon neutrality” meant more than a 50% increase in emissions between 2009 and 2020.
And while the plan assumed US$1.7 trillion in new carbon reduction investments by 2020, IATA was in no position to commit on behalf of individual airlines.
More than a dozen years and countless climate disasters later, ask yourself whether the international air transport lobby knew what it was up to. Aviation emissions doubled from 1987 to 2018 and grew 4-5% per year between 2010 and 2018, Our World in Data’s awesome data scientist Hannah Ritchie reported in 2020. The numbers dipped during the pandemic, but recovered to 80% of their pre-COVID levels by 2022, the latest International Energy Agency data show.
That’s the emissions profile of an industry that lobbied hard and successfully to be left out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, just as it was from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Seven years later, the industry was still adopting “watered down”, voluntary carbon targets, despite earlier projections that its emissions could grow 100 to 200% between 2000 and 2050 and put the Paris targets at risk.
Small wonder that aviation climate campaigners flew a banner with this slogan over the headquarters of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, during one of its triennial meetings in Montreal:
You can’t spell ‘procrastination’ without I-C-A-O.
So it turns out that the bold hints of a 2025 breakthrough from Air Company and Air Canada are just par for the course for an industry that almost invariably responds to the climate emergency by putting spin over substance. In this case, it would have been so much simpler and more honest, but so much less media-genic, if the two companies had just announced their strategic partnership as the longer, less certain slog that is almost certainly ahead of them.
But that would have meant centring the story in the engineering department or the project management office, rather than the PR and government relations teams. And that’s a feat of aerial acrobatics we’ve rarely seen any airline, anywhere, ever carry off with any degree of consistency.
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Mitchell Beer traces his background in renewable energy and energy efficiency back to 1977, in climate change to 1997. Now he and the rest of the Energy Mix team scan 1,200 news headlines a week to pull together The Energy Mix, The Energy Mix Weekender, and our newest weekly e-digest, Cities & Communities.
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