On the topic of making the airlines industry more sustainable, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) seems to be the golden ticket. Why is that?
The term itself is used broadly throughout the industry to refer to jet fuel comprised of non-fossil fuel origins and containing either biological sources -similar to biofuel- or non-biological sources.
According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), SAF can "achieve net GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions reduction on a life cycle basis; respect the areas of high importance for biodiversity, conservation, and benefits for people from ecosystems, in accordance with international and national regulations; and contribute to local social and economic development." In other words, SAF has the potential to lower the airline industry's environmental footprint significantly, making it a rather desirable option.
SAF even has the support of international governments and organizations, such as the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), which has imposed strict regulations as to how the term should be used in the definition.
IATA imposes that using the term sustainable with regards to SAF means that the finished product should result in "lifecycle carbon emissions reduction, limited fresh-water requirements, no competition with needed food production (like first-generation biofuels) and no deforestation." These specifications are a positive aspect for the industry as they can provide added accountability and prevent widespread greenwashing.
IATA also suggests that since 2016, over 375,000 flights have been powered partially by SAF, meaning that the topic has had time to circulate in the industry. As more and more flights occur, the technology behind developing Sustainable Aviation Fuel will only continue to get better.
That said, there are still particular challenges to SAFs that need to be further improved. A big one is the fuel's ability to keep up with the growing air travel market. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, global demand for jet fuel is expected to increase from 106 billion gallons in 2016 to a whopping 230 billion gallons by 2050. This statistical finding means that the supply of SAF will have to surge significantly to keep up with demand, which currently may not be possible at the rate it is produced.
Another major challenge includes cost, with SAF being more expensive than the more common, petroleum-based Jet-A fuel. Despite this, with continued research, development, and technological advancement, SAF has the potential to decrease to a more competitive level than traditional fuels.
United Airlines Uses SAF
United Airlines recently announced the success of their 100% SAF engine run flight. The trip departed from Chicago on December 1st and landed in Washington D.C. shortly after.
The right engine of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 ran 100% on SAF, a first for the company. The left engine ran on traditional jet fuel, meaning that roughly 50% of the flight's fuel was sustainably sourced, a rather significant accomplishment.
One of the flight's passengers, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, said, "United continues to lead from the front when it comes to climate change action. Today's SAF flight is not only a significant milestone for efforts to decarbonize our industry, but when combined with the surge in commitments to produce and purchase alternative fuels, we're demonstrating the scalable and impactful way companies can join together and play a role in addressing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes."
This accomplishment proves to many that incorporating Sustainable Aviation Fuels into commercial jets can and should be done.
Decarbonizing the Airline Industry
The aviation sector currently accounts for roughly 2% of all global emissions. Though this percentage may not sound like much, it is enough to make a difference if reduced.
With this in mind, the recent push for climate change remediation has seen ripples throughout many industries. This encouragement can be seen in the aviation sector through stricter regulations, goals, and even government intervention. For example, last year, the United States Environmental Protection Agency finalized Greenhouse Gass emission standards for various aircraft, provided resources on cutting emissions, and promoted a welcome to change.
Additionally, IATA's Director General, Willie Walsh, released a statement on behalf of the organization following COP26. "Airlines are on the pathway to net-zero carbon emissions, in line with the Paris agreement. We all want the freedom to fly sustainably. Reaching net-zero emissions will be a huge task requiring the collective effort of industry and support from governments. The pledges made at COP26 show that many governments understand the key to rapid progress is to incentivize technological change and fund innovative solutions. This is particularly true of sustainable aviation fuels, which will play a major role in addressing aviation's environmental impact—they need the right incentives from governments to ramp-up production."
What does all of this mean? For starters, it means that the world is seeing a significant push toward sustainable development within the aviation industry. This can ultimately encourage innovation and advancement to further lower emissions and waste.
Eventually, with a continued expansion, the sector will remain on a sustainable pathway, allowing individuals worldwide to experience other cultures, visit family, and take business trips, all without posing a significant environmental footprint.