What do airlines committing to sustainable fuel mean for the future of transportation?

Sustainability and Technology Writer Emily Folk breaksdown why airlines are searching for more sustainable ways to fuel their aircraft.

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Aviation only accounts for 2.4% of global carbon emissions, however, with an increased demand for air travel, this number is quickly on the rise. This may be due in part to the fact that more people are traveling short distances by plane instead of taking a car or train which have lower environmental impacts. Since this demand is likely to only increase with time, airlines are searching for more sustainable ways to fuel their aircraft. 

Aside from improved aircraft design and operation, sustainable aviation fuels may be the most realistic option for green flying. Scientists may derive these fuels from the waste of products such as perennial grasses, forestry materials and domestic vegetables. Collecting biofuels from such sources would avoid competition with crops like corn or sugar cane which we use for animal feed or food. Thus, these materials prove the most sustainable by helping solve waste issues, protecting farmland and emitting less carbon dioxide. 

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An Expensive Transition 

It’s been more than 10 years since scientists first introduced SAF to airlines, yet the biofuels still account for less than 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption.  This lack of adoption among airlines could be due to the fact that there simply isn’t enough funding yet to produce sufficient quantities. SAF can be up to three times more expensive than fossil fuel. And producers, consumers and key stakeholders haven’t reached a consensus on who will front the overhead cost of production. Thus, SAF isn’t yet able to reach a scale where they can effectively compete with the ever-popular fossil fuels. 

Fuel currently makes up nearly one-quarter of flight ticket prices. If airlines decided to gather funding from consumers, flight prices may double, especially among low-cost airlines, creating a backlash among price-sensitive customers. However, there are still feasible ways to fund SAF. For instance, if a significant number of businesses who rely on air travel voiced their demand for carbon-neutral air travel, this may ramp up production. This would convince firms to invest in the production of SAF. And, the more plants we build, the cheaper the production process and SAF becomes. 

So, although the price of biofuels is currently expensive, we may see a reduction in prices as the general demand for SAF increases and more stakeholders invest in their production. Additionally, the ease with which sustainable fuel sources can be mixed with conventional ones may make transitioning to SAF more feasible.

JetBlue, for instance, is already incorporating sustainable fuel into conventional kerosene to make their flights more sustainable. This blending of fuels would allow airlines to gradually incorporate SAF without adapting their engines. Moreover, it would either allow ticket prices to stay the same or gradually increase instead of experiencing an instantaneous price spike. 

When Will Biofuels Takeoff?

But, as to when airlines will make the full switch to SAF, no one knows. Currently, five biofuels are approved for mixing with jet fuel kerosene. However, only one SAF is mature enough for airlines to use commercially. Researchers and developers need more time and funding to support the large-scale production and commercialization of other alternative biofuels. Yet, policymakers are establishing mechanisms to support SAF. The United States, the Netherlands, Norway, the European Union and the United Kingdom all recently created such policies, with the most principal one being the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. 

CORSIA will implement a pilot phase in 2021 with a goal of meeting aviation’s efforts of long-term decarbonization. Through CORSIA, the International Civil Aviation Organization will require airlines to either buy emission reduction offsets from other sectors if their emissions increase or use biofuels. After the pilot phase ends in 2023, CORSIA will begin a voluntary phase until 2026 in which states can decide to join or withdraw from the program. By the end of 2035, ICAO will review the scheme’s impact and consider how to improve it. 

Thus, the success of CORSIA and capital investment will likely determine the future of sustainable biofuels. If demand increases, we may see increased production and funding of SAF. However, if biofuels can’t glean enough support, they may continue to be an unlikely option for reducing global air travel emissions. So, for now, affordable, sustainable biofuels remain a thing of the future more than the present. 

Bio:

Emily covers topics in renewable energy and technology. More of her work can be found on her site, Conservation Folks, and you can follow her Twitter, @EmilySFolk, to stay updated.

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