Paving the Way to a Greener Sky: The Role of Regulatory Frameworks in Advancing Sustainable Aviation Fuels
Author: Malak Trabelsi Loeb, Group Founder and CEO, Vernewell Group
As urgent challenges demand environmentally responsible solutions within the aviation sector, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) offer a promising pathway to combat climate change and transform air travel for a more sustainable future. However, it is essential to acknowledge concerns regarding the sustainability of all SAF derived from biological resources. While SAF are derived from diverse biological resources like waste materials and non-food crops, not all may meet the highest sustainability standards. Variations in feedstock sources, production methods, and geographical factors can lead to differences in the environmental impacts of SAF. Nevertheless, SAF meeting sustainability criteria present significant environmental advantages over traditional fossil jet fuels, substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In this article, we explore the benefits of SAF and the pivotal role of regulatory frameworks in driving SAF innovation and adoption, propelling us toward cleaner skies and a brighter future for future generations.
In this article, we explore the environmental advantages of SAF and highlight the pivotal role of regulatory frameworks in developing advanced biofuels. Governments, industries, and stakeholders can collaboratively drive the aviation sector towards a greener and more sustainable path by incentivizing research, harmonizing standards, and fostering widespread adoption. Moreover, we will examine an example of supportive policies that enable SAF adoption and production while addressing challenges and barriers to their widespread implementation. By understanding the connection between SAF and regulatory frameworks, we can pave the way for a greener aviation industry, contributing to global efforts in combating climate change and ensuring a more sustainable future for air travel.
- Environmental Advantages of Sustainable Aviation Fuels
SAF offer many environmental benefits, setting them apart as a promising solution to combat climate change and improve air quality. These advantages are derived from their distinct properties, production methods, and feedstock sources.
One of the main key environmental benefits is greenhouse gas emissions reduction. In fact, SAF have the potential to significantly reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions when compared to fossil jet fuels. By utilizing waste resources or non-food crops as feedstocks, SAF production avoids contributing to carbon emissions associated with deforestation or land-use changes. Additionally, SAF undergo a carbon-neutral process when certain feedstocks are used, resulting in a net reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.
SAF offer environmental advantages that effectively mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. SAF can reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% compared to traditional fossil jet fuels, depending on the used feedstock, and employed production process. Through meticulous accounting for CO2 absorbed during biomass growth and prevention of methane release from waste, SAF chart a course towards achieving sustainable air travel. However, noteworthy advancements in SAFs technology are rapidly unfolding. Among these, power-to-liquid processes, powered by electric energy, water, and CO2, have emerged as one of the newer frontiers for SAF production.
Moreover, extensive research over the past decade has demonstrated the local air quality advantages of using SAF. Studies have shown that a 50% SAF blend with conventional jet fuel can reduce particulate emissions by up to 65% and sulfur oxides by nearly 40%. These substantial emissions reductions can be achieved with existing aircraft and infrastructure, providing an opportunity to specifically target communities around airports that have historically borne a disproportionate pollution burden.
Additionally, the ultra-clean nature of SAF contributes to additional non-CO₂ climate benefits. According to a recent European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) report, cumulative aviation climate impacts could be three times higher than those attributed to CO₂ alone. Among the non-CO₂ contributors, “contrail cirrus” emerges as the largest factor. Contrail cirrus refers to the warming caused by contrails formed by aviation exhaust plumes at high altitudes and the additional cirrus clouds formed by contrails. While uncertainties exist regarding the magnitude of contrail cirrus impact, robust evidence supports its significant contribution to aviation’s climate impact. Addressing non-CO₂ impacts from contrail cirrus presents opportunities synergistic with current efforts to reduce CO₂ emissions, with SAF playing a vital role in tackling both issues. Research suggests that particulate matter reductions from SAF also reduce contrail cirrus impacts. For instance, a study cited in the EASA report indicates that a 50% SAF blend could potentially reduce contrail cirrus climate impacts by over 20%.
Furthermore, certain SAF production pathways utilize waste resources, such as municipal solid waste or agricultural residues, as feedstocks. Converting these waste materials into biofuels prevents the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which would have otherwise occurred during decomposition in landfills or waste treatment facilities.
Moreover, SAF have near-zero sulphur content, unlike fossil jet fuels that contain significant amounts of sulfur. The aromatic components found in fossil jet fuels disproportionately contribute to environmental impacts. By using SAF with minimal sulphur, the aviation industry can significantly reduce sulfur emissions, leading to cleaner air and improved environmental conditions.
Emerging technologies, like power-to-liquid, show great promise in advancing SAF production. Powered by renewable electric energy, these processes convert CO2 captured from the air or industrial emissions into synthetic liquid fuels. These SAF production methods reduce their carbon footprint by relying on renewable electricity, contributing to a more sustainable aviation industry.
The environmental advantages of SAF are immense and align with the aviation industry’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint. Through reduced greenhouse gas emissions, SAF offer a viable pathway toward achieving sustainable air travel. As research and innovation continue to propel SAF technologies forward, these advanced biofuels promise to transform the aviation industry into a greener and more environmentally responsible sector. However, their current high cost and need for further development present challenges, but the promise lies in utilizing renewable energy sources or waste gases from existing industries.
Ongoing research explores innovative solutions like solar jet fuel, which utilizes highly concentrated sunlight to disintegrate water and CO2 molecules. The commercialization of such technologies may be challenging and distant, but they underscore the ongoing efforts to make SAFs more viable and efficient. Such efforts to drive innovation can be supported through favorable regulatory frameworks to address the challenges.
- Driving Innovation in Sustainable Aviation Fuels: The Role of Regulatory Frameworks
Innovation in SAF depends on the regulatory frameworks, which play a crucial role in developing and deploying SAF. Regulatory frameworks can influence both the supply and demand for SAF, for instance, through mandates, tax incentives, and subsidies.
Several countries and regions have recently implemented policies to promote SAFs use. For example, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) provide SAF production and use credits in the United States. In Europe, the Renewable Energy Directive sets targets for renewable energy use in transport, including aviation. These regulations often include sustainability criteria, requiring SAF to achieve a certain reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuel. However, the methodologies for calculating these reductions can vary, leading to different results.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aimed to achieve carbon-neutral growth in international aviation from 2020 onwards. SAFs, improved aircraft technology, and operational efficiency are key to achieving this goal.
However, to fully realize the potential of SAF, international cooperation and harmonization of standards and regulations is required. This includes developing clear sustainability criteria for SAF feedstocks and production methods and mechanisms to track and verify SAF use.
SAF can potentially reduce the aviation sector’s carbon footprint significantly, but their development and deployment require technological innovation, supportive policies and regulations, sound economic models, and sustainability considerations. As the aviation industry soars into the future, SAF represent its most promising ally in achieving environmental sustainability.
Governments and international organizations worldwide are increasingly recognizing the urgent need to address the aviation industry’s environmental impact. As a result, many countries have started implementing various policies and regulations to incentivize the use of SAF and reduce the carbon footprint of air travel.
For example, the instrumental policy that has significantly contributed to the growth of renewable energy sources in the European Union (EU): the EU Renewable Energy Directive (EU RED) (2009/28/EC). Since its introduction, this directive has been crucial in promoting sustainable energy solutions, including SAF. Over the years, the RED has driven substantial progress in increasing the share of renewable energy sources in energy consumption across the EU. According to data from the EU Commission, the share of renewables in energy consumption has risen from 12.5% in 2010 to an impressive 21.8% in 2021.
As per the same EU Commission data the impact of this directive is evident in individual EU countries that have embraced renewable energy. Sweden stands out as a leader, achieving the highest share of renewables in consumption, reaching an impressive 62.6%. Close behind, Finland and Latvia have made remarkable strides, with 43.1% and 42.1% shares of renewables in their energy consumption, respectively, as reported by the Eurostat.
The EU RED has provided a clear and supportive framework for EU member states to pursue sustainable energy initiatives, including using and producing SAF. By setting targets and promoting incentives for developing and utilizing renewable energy sources, the directive has catalyzed investments and advancements in renewable energy technologies.
In the context of the aviation industry, this directive has encouraged airlines to explore SAF as a viable pathway to reduce their carbon footprint. By offering a regulatory environment that fosters the growth of sustainable aviation fuels, the EU has demonstrated its commitment to driving the aviation sector toward greater environmental sustainability.
Additionally, the EU RED incorporates sustainability criteria for biomass and introduces measures to eliminate barriers, stimulate investments, and reduce the costs of renewable energy technologies. Empowering citizens, consumers, and businesses, the Directive encourages active participation in the clean energy transformation, fostering a bottom-up approach to sustainability.
Aligned with the ambitious goals of the European Green Deal, renewable energy stands as a central pillar of the EU’s clean energy transition. Besides its environmental benefits, renewable energy proves to be a cost-effective energy source, reducing the EU’s dependency on external suppliers. This motivates the EU to regularly revise and enhance its ambition regarding the costs of renewables in the EU and the measures to achieve it.
Reflecting its commitment to a sustainable future, the EU Commission proposed another revision of the Directive in July 2021, raising the renewable energy target to 40% (up from the original 32%) as part of the comprehensive “Fit for 55” package to deliver on the European Green Deal. Such an ambitious proposal aimed to accelerate the clean energy transition even further.
However, the EU’s dedication to sustainability didn’t stop there. In light of geopolitical events, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the pressing need to bolster energy independence from fossil fuels, the Commission proposed a further increase in the renewable energy target to 45% by 2030. In fact, a provisional agreement was reached on 30 March 2023, setting a binding target for 2030 of at least 42.5% to 45%. This demonstrates the EU’s continuous commitment to reducing carbon emissions and embracing renewable energy on a grand scale.
Once this legislative process is completed, the new and ambitious targets set forth will be formally adopted and enter into force, marking a significant step forward in the EU’s pursuit of a greener and more sustainable future, which will impact SAF use. For instance, the continuous updating and reinforcing of the EU RED, the EU will strengthen its position as a leader in sustainable energy and underscore its dedication to combating climate change and fostering a more sustainable world. The success of these progressive policies serves as an inspiration and a model for other regions and countries seeking to accelerate their adoption of SAF, propelling the aviation industry toward a brighter and more environmentally responsible future.
As the European Commission continues to refine and update its policies, including the EU RED, we can expect even more significant progress in adopting and producing SAF. The success of the directive serves as an inspiration and a model for other regions and countries seeking to bolster their renewable energy usage and create a more sustainable future for aviation and the planet as a whole.
In the context of the aviation industry, the EU RED has encouraged airlines to explore SAF as a viable pathway to reduce their carbon footprint. By offering a regulatory environment that fosters the growth of sustainable aviation fuels, the EU has demonstrated its commitment to driving the aviation sector toward greater environmental sustainability. Building upon the success of policies like the EU RED, supportive policies take various forms, including:
• Incentives and Subsidies: Governments can provide financial incentives and subsidies to SAF producers and airlines, making SAF more economically competitive with traditional fossil fuels. These measures help bridge the cost gap between conventional fuels and SAF, making them a viable option for airlines to adopt.
• Mandates and Renewable Fuel Targets: Setting mandates and renewable fuel targets can drive the demand for SAF in the aviation sector. By requiring airlines to use a certain percentage of SAF in their fuel blends, governments create a guaranteed market for SAF producers, encouraging investment in production facilities.
• Carbon Pricing and Emissions Trading: Implementing carbon pricing mechanisms or emissions trading schemes can create a financial incentive for airlines to reduce their carbon emissions. This encourages airlines to transition to SAF, which offer substantial greenhouse gas emissions reductions compared to conventional jet fuels.
• Research and Development Funding: Governments can fund research and development initiatives focused on SAF technologies. Investing in innovation helps drive technological advancements, leading to more efficient and cost-effective SAF production methods.
• Sustainability Criteria and Certification: Establishing clear sustainability criteria and certification standards for SAF feedstocks and production processes ensures that SAF deliver genuine environmental benefits. It helps prevent potential drawbacks such as deforestation or excessive water use in producing biofuels.
• International Collaboration and Harmonization: As aviation is a global industry, collaboration among countries and international organizations is vital. Harmonizing SAF standards and regulations across borders ensures consistency and facilitates the seamless integration of SAF into the aviation supply chain. As the aviation industry operates on a global scale, with airlines flying across borders and international airports connecting people and goods worldwide, the impact of aviation emissions transcends national boundaries, making global collaboration essential for the sustainability efforts of the aviation industry.
• Public-Private Partnerships: Collaboration between governments, private industries, and research institutions can accelerate the development and deployment of SAF technologies. Public-private partnerships foster knowledge-sharing, leverage resources and promote a collective effort to combat climate change.
These supportive policies collectively create an enabling environment for SAF adoption and production. Governments can drive the aviation industry toward a greener future by reducing barriers and providing a clear roadmap for sustainable aviation. Additionally, these policies send strong signals to investors and businesses, encouraging greater participation in developing SAF technologies.
As the world moves towards decarbonizing the aviation sector, regulatory frameworks play a pivotal role in shaping the trajectory of sustainable aviation fuels. By fostering innovation, investment, and collaboration, these policies contribute to a more sustainable and environmentally responsible aviation industry globally. The transition to a greener and more sustainable aviation future can be met by continuously improving and expanding these supportive policies.
SAFs hold immense potential to revolutionize the landscape of air travel and combat climate change. By harnessing diverse biological resources and leveraging innovative technologies, SAFs offer a pathway to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly. However, robust regulatory frameworks are paramount to realize their transformative impact fully. Governments, industries, and stakeholders can collectively drive the aviation sector towards a greener and more sustainable path by incentivizing research, harmonizing standards, and fostering widespread adoption.
Nonetheless, despite the promising benefits of SAF, several challenges and barriers to adoption must be addressed. Cost, scalability, and infrastructure requirements pose significant hurdles to the widespread implementation of SAF. This is where the regulatory framework plays a crucial role in overcoming these obstacles for better readability. By offering financial incentives, subsidies, and research and development funding, governments can support the growth and cost-competitiveness of SAF. Additionally, clear sustainability criteria and certification standards can ensure that SAF are produced and utilized in an environmentally responsible manner, addressing concerns related to feedstock sourcing and production processes.
Embracing this collaborative effort and recognizing the need for international cooperation, SAF can pave the way for cleaner skies and a brighter, more sustainable future for future generations.
By aligning SAF standards and regulations across countries, aviation stakeholders can create a unified approach to sustainability. This international cooperation ensures that SAF meet consistent and stringent criteria for environmental impact, feedstock sourcing, and production processes, regardless of where they are produced or used. Such harmonization facilitates the seamless integration of SAF into the aviation supply chain, maximizing their positive impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving air quality worldwide.
Fostering collaboration between countries and international organizations enables the exchange of knowledge, resources, and best practices in SAF development and deployment. By working together, the global aviation community can accelerate the adoption of SAF and drive innovation in sustainable aviation, bringing us closer to a greener and more sustainable future for air travel. Through continuous improvement and expansion of supportive policies, the aviation industry will be able to accelerate the transition to a greener and more sustainable aviation future.