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Sustainable Aviation Fuels: Taking Off or Failure to Launch?

As vaccines are distributed and restrictions lifted, travelers are eager to get back to their weekend getaways and international rendezvous. Some studies predict that travel will skyrocket once all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. This is all fine and dandy for increasing cultural awareness and curing cabin fever, but with more air travel comes higher levels of CO2 emissions. With that in mind, companies are working quickly to find sustainable solutions to make air travel more climate-friendly, one of which being sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). The use of SAFs appears to be a gateway to lower emissions and “guilt-free” travel, but debate remains on their cost, effectiveness, and timeline for reaching net zero emissions.

SAF is fuel produced from biological sources, such as feedstocks, cooking/waste oils, solid waste, or food scraps. These fuels can reduce carbon emissions from flights by as much as 80%. According to BP, SAF can be used on any aircraft that is “certified for using the current specification of jet fuel,” from private jets to passenger aircrafts. Along with the reductions in CO2 emissions, SAFs are also associated with improved air quality, improved fuel efficiency, and improved energy security. 

With this seemingly easy and impactful swap to reduce emissions, it’s surprising to hear how little SAFs are actually used. As Christoph Wolff, Head of Mobility Industries at the World Economic Forum, put it, “These exist and work, but there are not enough and they are far more expensive than traditional jet fuels. The entire value chain has to work together to drive down the cost of these fuels and we can only fulfil this mission with the support of policy-makers, industry stakeholders and all of us that rely on aviation for business and prosperity.” The two main concerns of biofuels for those looking to purchase it are cost and availability. A large part of this is because demand for SAF is not yet high enough to produce these fuels at large volumes and at a low cost. Large-scale use will require a major market shift, led by either consumer demand for SAF or by new regulations on jet fuel, as well as improvements in technology.

Equity and emissions issues remain when examining the full life cycle of these fuels. S&P Global warns that “The tricky part is avoiding food-versus-fuel fights over feedstock, or stigmas attached to the harvesting of sources like palm oil, which is more popularly used in Asia. Airlines are also conscious of investors’ commitments to sustainability as shareholders and debtholders are considering ESG scores as well as return on investment.” Clearly questions of equity still remain when looking at SAFs from their creation to the point of use. Continued education and research is needed in order to verify the validity of the fuels as an equitable source of energy, and the involvement of conscious companies can serve as a stepping stone for ensuring the sustainability of SAFs in the future. 

Airlines are largely in support of the use of these fuels, as they are an attraction for climate-minded customers and have the potential to help airlines reach emissions reduction goals/mandates. Jetblue is quick to promote their personal SAF program — 100% of their flights out of San Francisco are fueled using SAF. But what they don’t put on the advertisement is that the SAF is actually mixed with regular jet fuel, in order to make it powerful enough to transport the plane. Current SAF has to be mixed with at least 50% traditional jetfuel in order to be powerful enough for travel. And these flights are also costly — consumers pay significantly more than they would on a flight fuel purely by jet fuel. To help with the increased cost, Jetblue offers programs for companies to “pre-buy” SAF that they use on their planes, in order to accommodate the higher prices and allow the company to claim some emissions reductions from their investment in this technology. 

Jetblue isn’t the only airline to take the leap into SAF — United Airlines and American Airlines have also hopped on the bandwagon by investing in SAF companies and adding SAF to certain flight routes. Many airlines are also partnering with companies that want to reduce their emissions and are willing to help grow the marketplace for SAF in order to make these fuels commercially-viable to produce. United Airlines is particularly proud of their investment: “Since 2016, United has used the most SAF of any airline globally and has flown 26 million passengers on flights powered with a SAF blend, 44 billion passenger-miles on flights powered with a SAF blend, and 215,000 flights powered with a SAF blend.” 

Companies and large corporations are behind the sustainable travel movement as well. Microsoft recently signed an agreement with Alaska Airlines to use SAF on its three most frequent routes. “Microsoft will purchase SAF credits from SkyNRG, and the SAF will be delivered to the airport fueling system used by Alaska Airlines. The companies will explore expanding the program in the future.” By purchasing SAF credits ahead of time, Microsoft provides a stable demand for SAF that allows companies that produce the fuel to do so in a way that is cost-effective. The SAF is then used to power trips on Microsoft’s most frequent routes, and as the purchaser of the fuel, Microsoft can claim the emissions reductions associated with the use of SAF versus traditional jetfuel. This is just one example of how many large organizations are pushing for more environmentally-conscious travel, which in time could encourage the mass-production of SAF and improvements in the technology. 

Some countries already have SAF fuel requirements and goals. For example, “Norway was the first country known to add a quota requirement for SAF, 0.5% of annual fuel from 2020, with a target of 30% by 2030.” The U.S. currently has no mandate for the use of SAF, but early pushes by the Biden Administration towards climate mitigation gives hope for more attention on sustainable transportation solutions in the coming years. “In 2018, it’s estimated that global aviation – which includes both passenger and freight – emitted 1.04 billion tonnes of CO2.” If all flights taken in one year are flown using SAF at its current maximum emissions reduction of 80%, global emissions from air travel would be reduced to 0.21 billion tonnes of CO2. That could make a significant difference for countries as they strive to reach ambitious emissions targets. 

While this preliminary usage of SAF is a powerful step and a strong indicator of a rise in awareness of both companies and customers, challenges remain in making SAF actually effective and widespread. But with post-quarantine travelers running out of patience and desperate for an escape regardless of the associated emissions, time is of the essence for airlines and policymakers to act. 



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