What Is Sustainable Aviation Fuel And Why Should You Care?

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Sustainable Aviation Fuel (or SAF) is a growing trend in the aviation industry as airlines work to curtail CO2 emissions. Despite that, in 2018, these fuels accounted for less than 0.01% of the aviation fuel consumed. Something has to change. So, what exactly is SAF, and why does it matter?

BA flies below contrails
How are SAFs making flying more sustainable? Photo: Getty Images

The case for Sustainable Aviation Fuel

A round-trip from London to San Francisco costs our atmosphere around one ton of CO2 emissions. That means for every passenger traveling in economy class between these destinations, CO2 emissions are produced equivalent to driving more than 3,700 miles in a diesel car. That certainly puts things into perspective.

With the International Air Transport Authority (IATA) predicting 8.2bn travelers in the next 17 years, it’s clear that emissions from the aviation industry will only rise. That’s where SAFs come in.

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If airlines adopt sustainable fuel on some of the services in place of conventional fossil fuels, they could save around 80% on their carbon footprint for these more eco-friendly services. That’s because SAFs are, as the name suggests, much more sustainable that dredging the earth for fuel.

Delta Air Lines desk at CDG
With more and more passengers due to take to the skies, airlines must invest in new sustainable fuels. Photo: Getty Images

How are SAFs made?

Sustainable Aviation Fuel is diverse because there is not a single method of making it. Earlier this month, we reported that Lufthansa is planning to make SAF from sunlight. While Lufthansa’s approach is particularly innovative and newfangled, there are plenty more accessible options out there. Some SAFs use cooking oils and non-palm waste oil, while others depend on solid waste. The aim here is not to get alignment across the field but to reduce the carbon footprint of the industry. Ergo, airlines are free to develop SAFs as they wish.

This experimentation is vital since the distinct benefit of using fossil fuels is that it’s more cost-effective, and the infrastructure already exists. This makes damaging fuel options more preferential to a healthy balance sheet and easier to get hold of. With the powers of experimentation, airlines can decide for themselves what SAF best suits their business.

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plane flies over landfill
SAF can be created from solid waste. Photo: Getty Images

Which airlines are using SAF?

Despite the interest, the uptake on SAFs at the moment is relatively low, potentially because of the effort required to invest in this new technology.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), at the start of 2019, just five airports in the world were using biofuels (SAFs that come from biological sources like plants) in regular supply. These were:

  • Bergen Airport, Norway
  • Brisbane Airport, Australia
  • Los Angeles International Airport, United States
  • Oslo Airport, Norway
  • Stockholm Arlanda Airport, Sweden.

When it comes to airlines, a few have invested in making SAFs part of their regular operations. In 2019, United Airlines purchased 10 million gallons of biofuel to use in the next two years. KLM is one of the airlines leading the way in sustainability and, at the end of last year, was looking to introduce biofuel at its hub in Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Delta Air Lines is also hoping to make biofuels from debris from the forest floor. And SAS allows its passengers to buy blocks of biofuel-powered sections on their flight.

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KLM biofuel airport
KLM will use biofuel at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. Photo: KLM

A lot is going on, so what’s the significance?

Why is SAF so important?

Operating on SAF is an excellent way for airlines to demonstrate their commitment to a sustainable future of the industry. Many carriers are bound by the obligations from CORSIA, which aim to half CO2 emissions by 2050 in comparison to emissions rates in 2005.

For that to happen, airlines cannot simply continue to operate as usual. They want to grow and should be doing that responsibly. Under the CORSIA agreement, all affected airlines should now be making carbon-neutral growth their priority.

SAF is the latest progression for the airline industry to develop alongside climate goals. It is evident that there is still a long way to go, but these hopeful beginnings signal that the industry has its heart in the right place.

Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts in the comments. 

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