Taking flight with sustainable aviation fuel: Benefits and considerations

February 28, 2024

Sustainable aviation fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon emissions by up to 80% but the benefits don’t stop there. The advantages of SAF extend beyond those of conventional, fossil-based jet fuel.

Aviation is core to global transportation, connecting people and goods across vast distances. However, the sector’s environmental impact—its carbon footprint, in particular—has become a growing concern in the face of climate change. As the sector works towards decarbonization, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is going to be key to helping propel aviation towards net-zero emissions by 2050.

SAF offers considerable advantages over traditional jet fuel—from providing a reduction in carbon emissions and air pollution to socioeconomic benefits. There are still challenges to producing and using SAF at scale, but the alternative fuel source is likely to play a key role in making future air travel more sustainable.

Benefits of sustainable aviation fuel

Reduces carbon emissions

One of the primary advantages of SAF is its potential to reduce lifecycle carbon emissions as compared to traditional aviation fuels. Depending on the feedstock, SAF is able to reduce lifecycle carbon emissions by up to 80%, resulting in a substantial decrease in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by aviation.

Contributes to cleaner air

The benefits of SAF start at the very beginning of the production cycle. For example, biogenic feedstocks used to create the fuel absorb carbon dioxide during their growth. SAF is more sustainable to produce, emits fewer harmful pollutants, and contains fewer sulfur and aromatic components—enabling aircraft engines to burn fuel more cleanly and with less pollution than conventional fuel.

Works with existing aircraft

Today, SAF acts as a “drop-in” fuel. Currently, it is blended with up to 50% conventional jet fuel and can be used as a direct replacement without any modifications to existing aircraft or infrastructure. This enables airlines to seamlessly transition to using the low-carbon alternative and demonstrate the potential of SAF in the near- and mid-term. As for the long-term, the industry anticipates new commercial jet engines to be compatible with 100% SAF as technology advances and investment into the fuel grows—in fact, there are new engines today that can fly on 100% SAF but are not yet used commercially.

Creates new economic opportunities

Increasing demand for SAF calls for an increase in supply. Producing SAF using renewable resources can create economic opportunities, including new jobs and revenue—especially in rural communities where feedstock cultivation occurs. In addition, the number of SAF production plants must dramatically increase in order to scale, leading to infrastructure employment opportunities.

Increases energy security

SAF can be produced from a range of renewable resources, reducing the industry’s dependence on a single source of fuel (fossil fuels). This diversification can lead to long-term energy security amidst a volatile oil market, and provide a more stable and predictable, long-term fuel supply.

Challenges of SAF

High cost to scale production

Currently, sustainable aviation fuel has a price premium as compared to traditional jet fuel. As a nascent solution, the primary challenges lie in achieving economies of scale to bring down production costs and the high cost of specialized processing required for biofuels. Despite this, the aviation sector expects SAF to become more financially viable as demand for SAF grows and technology advances.

Limited supply and manufacturing constraints

Access to the fuel itself poses a significant obstacle in the advancement of SAF. The production, distribution, and refueling of SAF is not yet widespread—sites (i.e., airports) with access to physical SAF are few and far between, and it is not ideal to ship the fuel as it could result in an increase of GHG emissions. In order to make the impact SAF is expected to, embracing systems, such as book and claim, will be essential for the adoption of SAF where physical fuel is not available.

Feedstock selection and availability

There is very little feedstock diversity amongst the SAF that is commercially available today. This is anticipated to change over time, and different feedstocks will have various benefits and disadvantages. The identification and sourcing of appropriate feedstocks at scale will be an ongoing conversation in the years ahead.

Fuel for the future

Sustainable aviation fuel can be a replacement for fossil-based fuels, with the same (or similar) energy outputs and physical characteristics—but at a fraction of the carbon emissions. Today, only 0.2% of global jet fuel being used is SAF and its limited production makes SAF almost three times more expensive than petroleum fuel; however, investing in SAF will increase use and accessibility, and ultimately, will help to stabilize cost.

To achieve widespread adoption of SAF and maximize its impact, we need to scale production, build infrastructure, and continue to make technological advancements. This progress requires a concerted effort from key stakeholders—including the contribution of many, including governments and regulating bodies, the scientific community, airlines, logistics companies, and individual and corporate travelers.

SAF represents a promising solution for reducing the environmental impact of aviation and achieving ambitious emission reduction goals.

To explore incorporating sustainable aviation fuel into your climate programs, reach out to CHOOOSE today.

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