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Can Airlines Usher In A New Era Of Clean Fuel?

On Wednesday, a coalition of 50 companies - including Delta Airlines, American Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific - signed a pledge to replace 10% of global jet fuel with so-called Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) by the year 2030.

SAF is made from recycled food and agricultural waste, such as used cooking oil, and is widely seen as the aviation industry’s best bet for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Although significant progress is being made in terms of electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft, these planes are generally small and at least a decade from being commercially viable. SAF, meanwhile, has already been used in 360,000 commercial flights, mixed in the fuel tank with regular jet fuel.

Why Is This Being Introduced?

The Clean Skies for Tomorrow coalition, which is formed of airlines, oil companies and other large corporates, is working to reduce the overall carbon emissions caused by greenhouse gases in pursuit of net zero targets. The need to address airline emissions is increasingly urgent, with global air traffic expected to double by 2037 and the 2019 peak of 900 million tonnes of CO2 emissions set to be exceeded in the next two to three years. By 2030, it is estimated that commercial flights will account for 3.5% of global emissions - up from 2.5% in 2019.

Airline emissions are expected to surpass their 2019 peak within the next two to three years.

SAF is seen as critical to addressing this problem, producing 80% less greenhouse gas emissions than conventional jet fuel. However, at current rates only 1% of global jet fuel demand will be met with SAF by 2030. Hence, the need for affirmative action to be taken to increase uptake and lower emissions.

What Are The Disadvantages?

SAF sounds like a no brainer but of course few things in life are so simple - especially when planes are involved. For a start there are large discrepancies between the different types of SAF, with some made from edible oils and sugars actually producing more CO2 than conventional jet fuel. Biofuels also require large amounts of land to produce, which is often carbon intensive and takes away spaces that could be used for growing trees or supporting biodiversity projects.

The most sustainable SAF is made by mixing green hydrogen with CO2 captured from the atmosphere. However this process is incredibly complex and likely won’t be commercially viable for another ten years or so.

SAFs are also incredibly expensive, costing between two to eight times more than kerosene. After the past year of lockdowns and travel restrictions, most airlines cannot afford to shoulder that financial burden.

Major corporations could pay for SAFs as a way of offsetting their emissions from business travel

Who Will Pay For It?

One method airlines are currently using to increase SAF uptake is to offer customers the chance to offset their emissions by paying more for their tickets. However, this has so far not proved popular, with Lufthansa noting that less than 1% of their customers have opted for the higher fees.

Cargo operators, however, will be more able to afford the extra fuel costs and passenger airlines are now looking at getting large companies to pay for SAF as a way of offsetting their emissions from business travel. The Clean Skies for Tomorrow coalition is taking this one step further by aiming to set up a certification system to allow large corporates to buy SAFs as a way of furthering net zero ambitions. The coalition is supported by a number of large corporations, including Bank of America, Boston Consulting Group and Deloitte - suggesting the scheme could at least prove popular among the country’s wealthiest businesses.

Another, potentially complementary approach, is for governments to back the use of SAFs as a way of reducing their countries’ overall emissions. Norway and Sweden already have minimum quotas for the amount of SAF that has to be included in aviation fuel and the UK and EU are considering similar measures. The US government is reportedly looking into a way to financially incentivise SAF production, lowering the costs for airlines to purchase the fuel.

While there are problems, therefore, on balance SAF seems a genuinely realistic and timely approach to reducing emissions from aviation. More widespread use will likely drive down prices from manufacturers and subsidies from corporations and governments can help prevent higher costs being passed on to airline passengers. Meanwhile, emissions will plummet, safeguarding the future of air travel for a decarbonized world.

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