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Sustainable Aviation Fuels Can Move Our World Forward. So, Where’s the Commitment?

Power of Ideas
Sustainable Aviation Fuels Can Move Our World Forward. So, Where’s the Commitment?

Flight shaming is increasingly common in popular culture, and in some ways, this isn’t surprising. Climate change is one of the major concerns of our time, and there are many ways to react to this problem. Major industries, including transportation, are hard at work to reduce the environmental footprint of their products.

When it comes to aviation, the promise of electrification or hydrogen fuel cells for long-haul flights is not viable in the short term. Those technologies may work to get you to the airport, but not to another continent. We are simply not there yet. Aviation relies on high-energy-density propulsion. If energy density had the progression curve of technologies like AI, we could talk about an electric plane flying passengers from Singapore to Los Angeles within a Millennial’s lifetime.

We don’t have to shy away from the fact that there’s a long technological road ahead. But if we want to reduce the environmental impact of aviation right now, we should pay more attention to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). SAF is a certified chemical equivalent to fossil fuels that “drops in” to any jet. It’s derived from alternative sources like plant-based feedstocks. The math is simple: The carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere while growing feedstocks offsets the carbon emissions from combustion in flight. We call this a closed loop, the benefits of which can be achieved without drastic changes to current jets.

There is a tremendous opportunity for the fuel industry and governments to shift their mindsets.

The business aviation industry’s plan to net zero is based on a combination of SAF adoption, realistic progression curves for propulsion technology, and the market’s ability to replace existing aircraft at a realistic pace, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

SAF is scientifically proven and is already in use. Bombardier, for example, covers all its internal flight operations with a blend of approximately 30 percent SAF. Due to distribution constraints, Bombardier uses a Book and Claim system, as it would be counterproductive to transport SAF from California (where it’s currently available) to our manufacturing facilities in Canada.

The truth is, there isn’t enough SAF being produced today. According to the International Air Transport Association, SAF production reached 300 million liters in 2022, representing 0.1 percent of aviation’s total kerosene consumption for the same year. In 2024, SAF production is expected to reach 1.875 billion liters, or 0.53 percent, of the fuel needed for global civil aviation. In order for aviation to achieve its goal of net zero by 2050, the growth in SAF production will need to reach 449 billion liters of SAF annually.

This low production volume means economies of scale are lagging. In turn, demand is constrained by prices and availability.

There is a tremendous opportunity for the fuel industry and governments to shift their mindsets from rigs and extraction to renewable growth. The carbon in cellulose, seed oils, or forest canopies can be refined and used to create billions of gallons of SAF that also easily mixes with the supply of traditional fossil fuels, hence the term “drop in.”

We are seeing some progress in building up SAF infrastructure, but not nearly enough. The world’s leading producer of SAF is Neste, based in Finland. Its largest SAF production facility, located in Singapore, can produce up to 1 million tons annually from waste oils and fats. Worldwide, there are almost 300 SAF facilities announced or in production and 120 airports that distribute SAF, the International Civil Aviation Organization reports.

This represents a fraction of the infrastructure development needed if aviation is to successfully transition to widespread SAF use.

At the core of SAF development is the condition that it will not interfere with food supplies and forest integrity. To accelerate further will take a government, or a combination of governments and energy conglomerates, to decide that it’s good business to put farmers to work. According to the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, “Additional feedstock production creates jobs in rural areas where economic opportunities may be limited.” There’s a path for governments and regulators to spur revolutions in the agricultural and petrochemical industries through SAF incentives. This will not only reduce emissions for aviation but revitalize or create rural economic development.

SAF gives us an effective way to reduce aviation emissions right now. What we need is the collective will to take production and distribution to a global level.