The airline industry is working on cleaner fuel — but how quickly can it decarbonize flying?

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April 22 is Earth Day. But as a What on Earth? reader, you know we celebrate Earth Day all year long.

This week:

  • The airline industry is working on cleaner fuel — but how quickly can it decarbonize flying?
  • 2022 was a hot year for heat pumps
  • Across Canada, ‘climate champions’ are taking action in their own communities

The airline industry is working on cleaner fuel — but how quickly can it decarbonize flying?

Two planes at an airport - one on the tarmac, one in flight.
(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Canadians love to travel, but we know that every flight produces CO2 emissions that contribute to climate change. 

While the airline industry currently contributes only 2.5 per cent of CO2 emissions, there’s fear that it could increase significantly by the end of the century. The industry is looking at ways to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and one major pathway is to explore the use of greener fuel. Here’s a look at what that means, and what the challenges are.

What is sustainable aviation fuel?

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is fuel derived from agricultural or synthetic materials (such as plants or animal fats) and recycled waste products (such as cooking oils) that can produce kerosene in jet engines. Simply put, it’s cleaner fuel.

It is used as a “drop-in” additive to traditional fuels in order to cut CO2 emissions.

While there have been experiments with electrifying smaller planes, the batteries are too large for commercial planes, where every ounce of weight matters. This is why SAF is seen as vital in reducing aviation CO2 emissions.

Since SAF was first used in commercial aviation in 2011, more and more airports and airlines around the world have been integrating the cleaner fuel. The Trudeau International Airport in Montreal began providing SAF in 2016, while Pearson International Airport in Toronto began providing it in 2021. To date, globally, there have been more than 450,000 flights that have used this type of fuel.

Even so, according to a 2021 working paper by the International Council on Clean Transportation, SAF production accounts for less than 0.05 per cent of global jet fuel demand.

What are some challenges?

“The biggest criteria [for SAFs] … is something called freeze point, which is the temperature at which molecules start to solidify,” said David Bressler, a professor at the University of Alberta’s faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences.

Typically, gas-turbine airplanes use fuels called Jet-A or Jet-A1, which are special types developed for the colder temperatures found at higher altitudes. Jet-A fuel has a freeze point of –40 C, while Jet-A1 has a freeze point of –47 C. Jet-B fuel has a much colder freeze point of –60 C. (There are other types of fuel, but these are the most common.) 

Replacing traditional kerosene fuel with SAFs means ensuring that the fuel can have similar freeze points. But there are other wide-ranging challenges, says Jim Harris, a partner at the consultancy Bain & Company who specializes in aerospace.

One is getting SAF up to an industrial scale, which Harris says requires a “real learning curve.” He noted that historically, ramping up similar chemical processes has taken several generations to get it right.

Then there’s the concern over inconsistencies in waste products — such as corn stover — which Harris said makes it more difficult to run at an industrial scale. Another consideration is using agricultural land for jet fuel rather than food. And finally, will the consumer be willing to pay for it?

Harris said that at the moment, the cost of SAF isn’t prohibitive, but that’s because the amount dropped into regular fuel is just a small fraction.

“But when you start to talk about 40 per cent, 50 per cent, 60 per cent of fuel replacement, that becomes a big deal very quickly,” Harris said. “Passengers are very price elastic, and small changes in price equal big changes of demand. And so we are worried that the industry can’t simply absorb significantly higher fuel costs and still make travel affordable.”

Will the airline industry reach net zero?

Last year, the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization agreed to a “long-term global aspirational goal” of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Transitioning to SAF is a big part of that.

Harris says that while the commitment is shared by the International Air Transport Association, and even companies like Boeing and Airbus, he feels the 2050 target is unlikely to be met.

“The pace of technology evolution … just makes that really hard in this timeframe. Even if you could introduce fully green propulsion in the early 2040s, it won’t make up a significant portion of the fleet by 2050 to really matter.”

He believes reducing the frequency of air travel, in combination with the development of SAF, may be a better way to hit the target sooner.

“We think a more realistic approach here is that aviation needs to show they’re making real progress, they need to show that there’s a path.”

Nicole Mortillaro

Reader feedback

Richard Killey:

“Great article about how restoring wetlands can save money. For years, I have been noticing construction in certain areas and commenting to my friends that it’s a bad idea. Nature does not forget. Especially water tables, etc. I hope studies like the one mentioned in the article will help communities all over the country deal differently with nature when we humans want something more convenient.”

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The Big Picture: 2022 was a hot year for heat pumps

In many ways, it seems like 2022 was the year that heat pumps reached critical mass, at least in the popular imagination. As the graphic below shows, heat pump sales grew by more than 10 per cent worldwide — and nearly 50 per cent in Europe — according to the International Energy Agency

Heat pumps use electricity to transfer heat in and out of buildings, effectively fulfilling the role of both a furnace and an air conditioner. Increased interest in the technology is largely down to a growing desire to reduce fossil fuel use in residential and business heating. The large jump in heat pump deployment in Europe can be explained by generous government subsidies (particularly in France, Germany and Italy), but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is also a major factor. It forced many countries to reconsider their reliance on Russian natural gas, and in March 2022, the European Commission said it would super-charge the heat pump rollout, aiming to double annual installations in the EU over the next five years.

The numbers in Canada aren’t as impressive — heat pumps only comprise six per cent of residential heating in this country. But the numbers are higher in the Maritimes (in New Brunswick, it’s 32 per cent), and the federal government now provides subsidy programs to help people make the switch.

Chart shows 2022 heat pump sales across the world, with large jumps in Asia and Europe.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Across Canada, ‘climate champions’ are taking action in their own communities

A middle-aged man smiles.
(Joel Law/CBC)

Climate change can feel like an impossible problem, with complex solutions out of reach for most of us. But when the What On Earth radio show asked listeners to nominate climate champions in their communities, there was a flood of responses. 

From coast to coast, people are striving to make the world a better place with on-the-ground work in their communities. Listeners nominated their partners, family members, colleagues and neighbours for an astonishing variety of climate action. 

Here are a few people finding ways to make a difference.

Sunil Singal (photo above) in Vancouver is president of the grassroots, volunteer-led advocacy group Force of Nature Alliance, which was part of the campaign that saved Burnaby’s Fraser Foreshore Park from city council’s plan to build an organic waste facility on the wetland. Singal spends his evenings on behind-the-scenes work, organizing meetings and campaigns and reaching out to elected officials. 

“We’re in a climate emergency, so every chance I have, I try to spend as much time as I can working on these things,” he told What On Earth host Laura Lynch. “Most elected officials are happy to chat about what your concerns are and how they can address them.”

A Williams Lake, B.C.-based team, including songwriter and facilitator Shannon O’Donovan and the young singers and songwriters in the Williams Lake Climate Change Youth Group, were nominated for their song We Can Think It Out, which gives voice to the complex emotions young people feel about climate change.

“I really thought that our song was quite inspiring and I really wanted to be part of something that would help people and keep climate change from destroying our lands,” said 11-year-old singer Raven Shepherd. 

Justice Morningstar in Ottawa is the manager of the 20/20 Catalysts program at Indigenous Clean Energy, a training program that helps participants move clean energy projects forward in their home communities. 

“‘It’s life-changing’ is one of the main things I’ve heard from all our alumni — that going through the 20/20 Catalysts program has changed their lives completely,” she said. “It shifted their mindset and they are able to drive their projects forward in ways that they couldn’t even imagine before the program.”

Nina Newington, from Mount Hanley, N.S., is an activist who’s been arrested for her peaceful efforts to protect old-growth forests from logging.

“I think if there’s a way through the climate and biodiversity crisis, it’s actually going to take us to a better society,” she said. “It’s going to take us to a better way of being with each other and a less colonial mindset.”

Chris Taggart in Ottawa created the Slack group Electrify 613 and the new website to help people share information about how to make their homes more climate-friendly. 

“Having kids and then seeing them grow and then seeing the future they’re set up to inherit and knowing that we have choices and changes that we can make now to alter that future really inspired me to take some initiative and … try to do something to move things forward,” he said. 

Claire Kraatz in Calgary is the co-lead of Alberta’s chapter of the climate advocacy group For Our Kids and was nominated as a champion for her work on the Alberta campaign to electrify school buses. 

“I see myself as a very concerned parent who really just wants to make a small difference and try and push the needle or push that ball up the hill so that once it gets to the top, maybe we can start to see that momentum down the hill,” she said. 

Bruno Hoffman splits his time between his South Surrey home and his boat in Pender Harbour, B.C., and was inspired by his love of the ocean to create The Green Boater, an online resource for seafarers that includes information about how to reduce emissions at sea — from electric boats to cleaner-burning engines. 

“My little part of the world is talking to boaters and seeing if we can just help them do one thing, just change one little thing times a million, and maybe we can have an impact on the ocean,” he said.

Andrew Mills from Calgary is the president of the Eco-Solar Home Tour Society of Alberta, which offers free tours of energy-efficient homes around the province. 

“It’s about changing perceptions,” he said. “Even in a province like Alberta, where everybody says, ‘Oh, gas is the only way to heat,’ you can actually get people looking at renewables, get people looking at their carbon footprint and … going down a path that is a little bit more sustainable.”

Rachel Sanders

Do you know a climate champion in your community? You can send a nomination anytime to

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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