In the wake of binary narratives about climate change, people often tend to present usual culprits and usual saviours without giving a second thought to the actual accuracy of such division. Thus, traditional means of transport play the role of the villain, while electric vehicles are the superheroes coming to save us all. But what if we flip the image and notice an opportunity in a sector we don’t typically associate with sustainable solutions?
Let’s talk about aviation then
Air transport has had a bad rap for a while now, about these issues. The Swedish word ‘flygskam’ (embarrassment over the environmental impact of travelling by plane) tells us everything we need to know about the perception of the flight industry in the world going rapidly green.
I dare to claim that it is not aviation that poses a problem but rather the fossil hydrocarbons put in the fuel tank of aircraft. If we change it, we may transform the problem into an opportunity.
The already famous “Fit-for-55” package gives us quite a good incentive to look at it from this exact perspective. The EU’s target of reducing net greenhouse emissions by at least 55% by 2030 translates into a very concrete set of climate, energy and transport-related legislative proposals. The plan for transition includes inter alia the ReFuelEU Aviation proposal, aiming at reducing the aviation sector’s environmental footprint by using SAF (advanced biofuel and electrofuels). The goal is ambitious, the proposal includes a blending obligation for fuel suppliers - starting in 2025, the aviation fuel made available to EU airports should contain 2% SAF, increasing to 5% by 2030, 32% by 2040 and finally 63% by 2050.
The potential of SAF is largely untapped as it represents only 0.05% of total fuel consumption in the sector. What are SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuels) and electrofuels (e-fuels or synthetic fuels) then? Why is it so difficult to incorporate them?
SAF and e-fuels
Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is also known as non-conventional aviation fuel, bio-jet fuel, or alternatively, renewable jet fuel. Thanks to the advanced technology, the feedstock for SAF is very varied, ranging from cooking oil, plant oil, municipal waste, waste gases and agricultural residues – just to name a few. The chemical and physical characteristics of SAF are almost identical to those of conventional jet fuel. On the other hand, e-fuel is produced with the help of electricity from renewable energy sources, water and CO2 from the air.
Both SAF and e-fuels can be safely mixed with conventional fuels in any desired ratio. Both are compatible with today’s internal combustion engines so they can power airplanes. The existing transport, distribution and fuel infrastructure can be used without major adjustments. Fuels with these properties are called “drop-in fuels” (i.e. fuels that may be automatically incorporated into existing airport fuelling systems).
The biggest advantage, especially in the context of sustainability, is the potential to generate lower carbon dioxide emissions than conventional kerosene on a life cycle basis. For SAF, compared to fossil fuels, it is a reduction of up to 80% in carbon emissions (depending on the sustainable feedstock used, production method and the supply chain to the airport). As for e-fuels, these are completely climate-neutral since the amount of CO2 emitted during the use corresponds to the amount previously bound during the production.
Where is the catch? Surely, it is in the price. Both SAF and e-fuels are still more expensive than traditional jet fuel, its costs are currently up to eight times higher than regular jet fuel. As with every novelty in the high-tech industry, it takes time to commercialize it to the extent where the real competition puts pressure on the prices. As for now, the production of alternative fuels is limited as the higher cost is preventing wider uptake. Additionally, e-fuels require a huge amount of energy to be produced. If it is to meet its climate neutrality condition, the energy must come from renewables, which poses an extra obstacle.
What can be done then? Governments surely have a big role to play. As increasing production requires long-term policy certainty to reduce investments risk, there is an urgent need for the right legislative solutions. Interim support from authorities and other stakeholders through a set of incentives is necessary. In Europe, there are already some good examples to follow.
“Greening” the aviation sector
Air France flight no. 6235 that took off on 1st October from Nice Airport heading Paris-Orly was seemingly just one of many. What made it so special was hidden in the fuel tank of the aircraft. It contained 30% SAF. The secret ingredient was a concretized symbol of the dual ambitions of public and private enterprises to meet the major challenge of decarbonizing air travel.
The fuel was produced from waste and residues generated by the circular economy by a private French company TotalEnergies.
Nice Airport, the second-largest French airport, from where the plane departed, is a leading instrument of economic development in the Hexagon. The airport is a long-time active and determined contributor to environmental policy, with its commitment to "Net Zero Carbon", with no offsetting, by 2030.
Air France continually and stubbornly stresses that only close collaboration between all stakeholders allows SAF to become the main driver of decarbonisation and allows the air transport sector to meet the challenge of a significant CO₂ emissions cut.
Another prominent case was set in September 2021 in Italy. The energy company Eni, and Aeroporti di Roma (ADR) have signed a strategic agreement to promote decarbonization in aviation.
Since 2014 Eni has been producing biofuel (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil - HVO) in its bio-refineries and it is able to produce SAF using the very same technology. ADR, the leading Italian airport hub has been carbon neutral since 2013 and has committed to eliminating all its emissions by 2030.
The agreement between the two Italian leaders includes the development of decarbonization and digitalisation projects to boost the transition of ADR-managed airports to smart hubs. Additionally, it implies the introduction of sustainable fuels for aviation over the coming months.
Among the other cases in this sector, Royal Dutch Shell plc, commonly known as Shell, in September 2021 has announced its ambition to produce around 2 million metric tons of SAF a year by 2025. It also plans to have at least 10 percent of its global aviation fuel sales as SAF by 2030.
The announcement came after Shell published two reports on “greening” the aviation sector. ‘Decarbonising Aviation: Cleared for Take-off’ (created jointly with Deloitte) and ‘Decarbonising Aviation: Shell’s Flight Path’. Both documents outline the ways to reduce emissions and become a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050 - Shell’s official target.
The words were turned into action as Shell declared the construction of a biofuels facility at the Shell Energy and Chemicals Park Rotterdam, the Netherlands, with the ability to produce 820,000 tonnes of low-carbon fuels a year. Although this is a drop in the proverbial bucket, as the jet fuel demand in pre-Covid 2019 reached 330 million tonnes, the direction is undoubtedly right.
Clearly, the French public-private mix, the Italian agreement, and Shell’s ambitious plans pave the way and show examples of how things should be done.
Although both SAF and e-fuels are rather at the early stage of their development, one cannot ignore the promising future they have ahead of them. If everything goes well, the embarrassment over taking a plane will soon be replaced by the embarrassment over disbelieving the green aviation sector.