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Clark: Sustainable fuel on long haul flights is miles off

Long-haul flights using anything but fossil fuels are currently impossible, according to Tim Clark, the president of Emirates Airline.

“You will not fly an A380 to Los Angeles with 500 passengers on board, burning 200 tons of fuel, on anything other than fossil fuels for the time being. It won’t happen,” Sir Tim Clark told reporters this week at Arabian Travel Market.

In February Emirates operated its first flight with one of its engines powered entirely with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). 

The flight, which flew for more than an hour, was a showpiece event for the UAE’s Year of Sustainability, which culminates in hosting the Cop28 climate summit in November.

However, Clark cautioned: “The notion that sustainable aviation fuels is going to crack this terrible nut in the next few years is going to be a very difficult one to answer. We’ve got the tech to do it, but globally the funding is not there to industrialise.”

Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker has previously called for an overhaul of the SAF market, labelling the fuel “exorbitantly expensive” and saying it is only available in low volumes “because the cost to produce is too high”.

Speaking at a press conference this week, he said the idea of buying SAF at its current prices would mean passing on the expense to passengers.

“We are fighting with oil companies to create the economics of scale to produce SAF in big volume in order to bring the price down so that airlines will be able to use it,” he said.

In January UAE renewable energy company Masdar, state oil firm Adnoc and oil major BP agreed to conduct a joint feasibility study on exploring the production of SAF in the UAE.

The agreement, which includes Abu Dhabi Waste Management Company and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, will explore the production of SAF, alongside products such as renewable diesel and naphtha, using municipal solid waste and renewable hydrogen.

The global aviation industry has agreed to work towards a target of net zero emissions by 2050 – the industry is responsible for around 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions.

Clark said that compared with the automotive industry at 18 percent and the power and utilities sector, which emits up to 50 percent of CO2 globally.

“But the real storm is the aviation community, it seems to be the one to go after,” he said.

According to the airline association IATA, using sustainable fuels and carbon offsetting will contribute more than 80 percent of the reduction in emissions.

Other low emission technologies like electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft are also being developed by major aviation players like Airbus.