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Can sustainable aviation fuels help us decarbonise aviation?

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Fueling of SAF through the hydrant system at Oslo airport.

Along with future hybrid, electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft, Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) represent one of the most promising solutions for aviation as the sector looks to transform itself towards a more sustainable future.

SAF are estimated to generate 80% less carbon emissions than conventional kerosene , and have the potential to reduce emissions considerably if uptake and production of SAF increase. However, there are a number of obstacles to overcome before this can become a reality, such as a strong business case and the emergence of a supportive policy framework. One way of kick-starting the SAF revolution, as EUROCONTROL’s recent Think Paper on the pros and cons of taxing aviation argues, could be to ring-fence taxation to support aviation decarbonisation measures including SAF.

Think paper

Does taxing aviation really reduce emissions?

Learn more in our think paper.

KLM airplane being refueled with SAF

In January 2021 KLM operated the first commercial passenger flight from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to Madrid using an admixture of 500 liters of sustainable synthetic kerosene.

KLM

"Fleet renewal contributed  significantly to the reduction of CO2 emissions, but the upscaling of production and the use of sustainable aviation fuel will make the biggest difference for the current generation of aircraft. That is why we teamed up with various partners some time ago, to stimulate the development of sustainable synthetic kerosene. This first flight on synthetic kerosene shows that it is possible in practice and that we can move forward."

But what do we mean when we talk about SAF?

SAF are a cleaner substitute for fossil jet fuels. They fall into two categories: biofuels or synthetic fuels. Biofuels are produced from biomass, (e.g. plants and wood products) or residues (e.g. used oils and waste). The latter are more sustainable and address the ethical concern of competition within the food chain of local populations (e.g. crops). Synthetic fuels - also called electrofuels, efuels or power-to-liquid (PtL) - are produced from two basic ingredients: carbon dioxide and water, but require large amounts of electricity. Synthetic fuels can be zero-carbon, if renewable electricity is used in the production process, and CO2 captured from the air. Already today, SAF are compatible with current aircraft and can be blended with kerosene up to 50% using existing engines and the existing fuel supply chain at the airport. They comply strictly with fuel specifications through certification. SAF also improve air quality as they reduce direct emissions: particulate matter by up to 90% and sulphur by 100%, compared to conventional jet fuel. This makes SAF an asset to also address the challenges of non-CO2 emissions.

Using SAF: At what stage is the industry?

Today SAF account for less than 1% of total EU aviation fuel consumption –in part because SAF from biomass cost about three times more than kerosene, efuels even eight times more. Ramping-up the production of SAF at competitive prices will be necessary to unleash their full potential to decarbonize aviation. Nevertheless, more and more airlines and airports are in the process of offering SAF to their customers: Oslo airport became the first international airport to offer SAF as part of the fuel mix in 2016.

“It is quite simple, really, and has been clear for Avinor for more than a decade: We have to reduce the carbon emissions from our industry significantly over the coming years. SAF is a turnkey solution and will work with today’s hardware. But prices have to come down, and production must be scaled up.”

Arvid Løken Senior Advisor, Carbon Reduction Programme, Avinor

SAF initiatives are now spreading across Europe. For instance, SAF became available in Switzerland for the first time in 2020 when Zurich Airport drove the initiative to provide it to business jets during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. Lufthansa Cargo and logistics company DB Schenker undertook their first CO2-neutral freight flights from Frankfurt to Shanghai and back in November 2020. The companies also announced their intention to offer CO2-neutral air freight as a regular product for the shipping industry from the 2021 summer flight schedule onwards.

SAF is high on the agenda of policy-makers

At global level, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) advocates SAF as a top priority option for reducing CO2 emissions by 2035. It has also set a complementary economic measure - the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), through which airlines can buy carbon credits to offset their own CO2 emissions, and fund decarbonisation projects around the world.

In Europe, the European Union agreed one year ago to aim for climate neutrality by 2050. The European Commission proposed tougher climate goals for 2030 and set off an extensive review of all EU policies ranging from energy to transport and agriculture – an ambitious agenda known as the European Green Deal. As part of this agenda, the European Commission is expected to adopt the so-called ‘ReFuelEU Aviation’ proposal, which aims to boost the supply and demand for sustainable aviation fuels in the EU and is also about to amend the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) along the same direction in 2021. Several policy options setting obligations for minimum delivery of SAF (or minimum reduction of CO2 emissions) are currently under debate. Obligations may be set on suppliers, on airlines or on both sides. In 2021, the European Commission also plans to review the EU European Trading Scheme (ETS) Directive (a legally binding mechanism capping emissions for the industry, including aviation) to align it with the ‘ReFuelEU Aviation’ initiative.

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