Airlines and sustainability: commit to using 10% alternative fuels, a bold commitment


By Hanna Ziady, CNN Business

More than 50 airlines, oil companies and other companies, including Delta, BP and Boeing, have pledged to replace 10% of the world’s jet fuel supply with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2030.

It is one of the boldest commitments to date to tackle the environmental impact of air travel and will require an exponential increase in the production of SAF, which currently accounts for only 0.1% of the jet fuel used in the aircraft industry. commercial aviation.

Produced primarily from recycled food and agricultural waste, such as used cooking oil, SAF is a type of biofuel that reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 80% compared to conventional jet fuel, and is considered to be essential for reducing aviation’s rapidly increasing carbon emissions.

Since electric and hydrogen planes will not be available for at least another decade, even for short-haul flights, SAF “holds one of the most important keys to decarbonizing aviation,” said Matteo Mirolo, head of aviation policy at Transport & Environment , a green campaign group in Europe.

But SAF’s green references come at a steep price, and they are very rare. This is what makes Wednesday’s announcement from the “Clean Skies for Tomorrow” coalition so ambitious. Other signatories include Airbus, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and Shell.

SAF currently costs between two and eight times more than its fossil fuel-based alternative.

In 2019, less than 200,000 metric tonnes were produced globally – less than 0.1% of the roughly 300 million metric tonnes of jet fuel used by commercial airlines, according to a November 2020 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF ) and McKinsey, which has also embraced the commitment as a business that relies on air travel.

The report found that if all publicly announced SAF projects are completed, volumes will reach just over 1% of expected global demand for jet fuel in 2030 – a fraction of the target unveiled on Wednesday.

“This is a fundamental step in the industry,” said Anna Mascolo, president of Shell Aviation, which announced this week that it will produce 2 million metric tonnes of SAF per year by 2025, or 10 times more than what was produced in the world in 2019..

“We need to do more to decarbonize the [aviation] sector, ”Mascolo told CNN Business, adding that“ sustainability will come at a price ”.

Who will pay is not clear. The German Lufthansa claims that less than 1% of its passengers currently use an option to offset their CO2 emissions by paying more for their tickets to cover the additional cost of using SAF.

According to Mascolo, freight operators, whose revenues are more resilient than passenger carriers, will play a key role in SAF’s investments, as will companies wishing to offset emissions from business travel.

Fuel demand

The pledge unveiled Wednesday aims to send a “strong demand signal” to the market so fuel producers have more confidence in investing in SAF, said Lauren Uppink Calderwood, head of aviation industries, travel and tourism at WEF, which brought the business coalition together.

“We have to see money going into new [SAF] factories, ”she added, noting that there are currently only about three that produce significant volumes, with 10 more sites expected next year.

To encourage more business travelers to cover the higher costs of SAF, the coalition, which also includes Bank of America, Deloitte and Boston Consulting Group – have developed an SAF certification system that allows companies to purchase SAF to offset their travel-related emissions. This is important for companies that have already set net zero emission targets.

“Carriers alone will not be able to bear the cost burden,” Uppink Calderwood said. “If they committed to buying the fuel, they would not be able to keep their business going,” she added, saying the coalition’s goal is to spread the risks and costs down the chain. valuable.

A growing number of airlines around the world are already using SAF in their operations, but usually in small amounts mixed with standard jet fuel.

Over the past decade, SAF has been used on 360,000 commercial flights, the vast majority of which have taken place in the past five years, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

IATA estimates that forward purchase contracts for SAF will total $ 13 billion this year, up from just $ 2.5 billion in 2016. That number could reach $ 30 billion by 2025, which would be another less than a fifth of the airline industry’s global jet fuel bill in 2019, according to IATA.

Governments are also adopting policies to promote and even enforce the use of FAS, which experts say will be key to boosting supply and demand. Norway and Sweden, for example, require that a minimum amount of aviation fuel sold in countries be SAF.

SAF warrants have also been offered in the UK and the European Union, while the current US administration is considering incentives to support SAF production, according to a recent Reuters report.

“In 2016 there were two countries that had an SAF policy, now there are 36 countries,” said Chris Goater, responsible for corporate communications at IATA.

“More and more governments are starting to see the benefit of adopting SAF in different ways. At the end of the day, this has to give impetus to some kind of global agreement, ”he added.

Decarbonize aviation

The pandemic has resulted in a sharp reduction in carbon emissions from aviation in 2020, but the reduction promises to be temporary.

Global air traffic is expected to double to 8.2 billion passengers in 2037, according to IATA, which predicts that aviation emissions peak in 2019 of around 900 million tonnes of CO2 will be exceeded by now two to three years.

At the same time, the window to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and avoid catastrophic climate change is closing fast.

The International Energy Agency predicts that aviation’s share of global carbon emissions will increase to 3.5% by 2030, from just over 2.5% in 2019 in the absence of efforts to decarbonize.

While the aviation sector has yet to commit to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 – a target that some experts say is necessary to align with the Paris climate targets – the SAF will nonetheless be essential. to help the industry meet its current goal of halving carbon emissions. by 2050 compared to a 2005 baseline.

This equates to a three-fold reduction in emissions in 2019.

“Aviation has a huge climate problem and if we don’t provide it with SAF, it won’t start solving its problem,” said Mirolo of Transport & Environment.

But not all SAFs are created equal. There are multiple ways to produce fuel, not all of which are considered sustainable.

For example, reusable plastics and even some edible oils and sugars generate more CO2 than jet fuel during their life cycle when burned. There are also fears that refueling planes with edible materials will increase the demand for land, endangering food security while contributing to deforestation and therefore to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainable aviation fuel can only live up to its name if the feedstock meets the criteria for sustainability,” according to the WEF and McKinsey report, which lists used oils and residues, such as fuel oils. used cooking and animal fats, among the most durable. raw materials.

Other sustainable raw materials include various agricultural and forestry residues and municipal solid wastes, although the processes to turn them into SAF are more complex and the technology is not yet widely available.

By far the cleanest way to produce SAF is to combine green hydrogen with carbon dioxide captured directly from the atmosphere to produce synthetic fuel. This is sometimes referred to as e-kerosene or power-to-liquid.

But the technology to develop this is immature and it could take a decade before it becomes widely available, according to Sami Jauhiainen, vice president of business development at Neste in Finland, currently the largest producer of SAF in the world.

“We are actively seeking investment opportunities in the electric fuels side,” Jauhiainen told CNN Business. He said the challenge of decarbonizing aviation is such that a range of technologies and raw materials need to be explored.

“If you look at the urgency we face in tackling climate change and the carbon budget we have to hit a 1.5 degree Celsius trajectory, we look forward to having electric fuels,” a- he added.

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