How can cleaner aviation contribute to a sustainable future?
Globally, transportation accounts for an outsized proportion of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making it the second-largest contributor to climate change, according to the World Bank. Aviation alone is responsible for between 2-3% of all GHG emissions, and experts foresee an increase in that percentage caused by the growing demand for passenger air travel. The overall contribution of aviation to climate change is even higher (as high as 5% in some studies) because aircraft not only emit CO2; they also emit soot and water vapor, create cirrus contrails, and otherwise affect atmospheric makeup.
It’s clear that aviation presents numerous challenges to the quest for a sustainable future, and many strategies are currently being implemented to solve them. Unfortunately, most of those solutions are either not viable on a large enough scale, or can’t be scaled up quickly enough to make the necessary impact.
For example, battery-powered electric engines are effective at decarbonizing many types of transportation, and electric aircraft may be an important part of aviation’s future. Today, however, battery technology is simply too large and too heavy to work in passenger aircraft. Similarly, replacing air travel with efficient rail transport that is more environmentally friendly has the potential to put a dent in aviation emissions. However, the bulk of aviation emissions come from long-haul flights which rely on routes that trains can’t use. While some engineers are optimistic about solving these problems in the future, they remain major barriers to the decarbonization of aviation. What is required is a range of solutions – including electrification, hydrogen solutions, and high-speed rail transport – working in combination. In the short term, however, the most important of those solutions is SAF.
Why Sustainable Aviation Fuel?
SAF is a crucial piece of the puzzle for several reasons. Made from 100% renewable raw materials such as wastes and residues, SAF reduces fossil fuel dependence while simultaneously providing an opportunity to commercialize resources that might otherwise end up in landfills or be improperly managed. Additionally, because it is chemically comparable to traditional jet fuel, SAF is considered a “drop-in” solution. This means that no engine modifications or infrastructure changes are needed in order to accommodate it. In comparison to electrification, railway construction, and other potential decarbonization strategies, very little financial investment is required to achieve far greater benefits. It’s also worth noting that sustainable aviation fuel can reduce non-CO2 related climate effects of aviation – for example, SAF creates no sulfur oxide emissions and can decrease the emission of soot particles by up to 70%.
Most importantly, SAF is a solution that is available today. The technology is there, supply chains are in place, and production is ramping up. It is entirely possible that in the long run, other technologies will provide even better emissions reductions or financial returns than SAF, but in the short term, it stands alone as an economically viable and scalable solution. Projections indicate that meeting the IATA and EU’s climate targets will require 65% of aviation emissions reductions to be made possible by SAF.
Is there a timeline for SAF climate impact?
Currently, a growing number of major airports and airlines already supply and use SAF, which has been used in over 370,000 commercial flights since 2016. However, adoption needs to increase drastically over the next several years in order to maximize SAF’s emissions-reduction potential. Aircraft consumed over 300 million tons of fuel in 2019, of which only around 200,000 tons were SAF. Neste, which already produces more than half of the world’s SAF, aims to increase its production to 1.5 million tons in 2023, and continues to partner with suppliers and innovators around the world to help increase the global availability of sustainable aviation fuel.
Going forward, legislation will factor heavily into SAF market dynamics. By creating security around the future of demand – for instance, through SAF usage mandates or incentives– governments and regulatory bodies can speed the rate of new investments, supply chain growth, and sustainable fuel production. In order for this to take place, awareness must continue to build around the crucial challenge of reducing transport emissions and around the ability of SAF to contribute to that goal. With the window of opportunity closing on major 2050 climate goals, corporations, governments, and other organizations must act now. By working together, it is possible to develop a sustainable aviation industry, and a sustainable future for all.
*The International Air Transport Association represents 290 airlines, or more than 80% of global air traffic.