Travel and Tourism

Why businesses are choosing to fly on Sustainable Aviation Fuel

A plane from below flying through a cloudy sky. Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) are a clean substitute for fossil fuels produced from sustainable resources.

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) are a clean substitute for fossil fuels produced from sustainable resources. Image: Unsplash/Philipp Myrtop

Lauren Uppink
Head, Climate Strategy, World Economic Forum LLC
Anne Carnall
Policy Lead, Clean Skies for Tomorrow, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Business leaders have recognised that they must be a part of the solution of decarbonising the aviation sector if they are to be accountable for the future actions of their firms.
  • Options for sustainable flying are becoming increasingly available and are developing rapidly – in particular Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), a clean substitute for fossil fuel produced from sustainable resources.
  • Leaders who will come together in Davos for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2022 have been urged to purchase sustainable aviation fuel for their travel to and from Switzerland, in instances where they can’t travel to the town by alternative methods such as by rail.

After two years of radically reduced air travel across the globe, many travellers, both business and leisure, are asking themselves if resuming their previous travelling patterns is responsible. With recent IPCCC reports categorically declaring that we have already warmed the earth enough to have devastating consequences for people, nature and livelihoods, business leaders, in particular, are reviewing the travel footprint of their companies.

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Sustainable flying is becoming increasingly available through Sustainable Aviation Fuels

As we begin to emerge from the couple of COVID-19 years, which demonstrated new ways of collaborating and saw rapid technology change to enable virtual connections, the solution to avoid aviation emissions may for some be “simply” to avoid flying. For many others who recognise the economic and social benefits of visiting and meeting people in different parts of the world, and for whom other modes of transport are not viable, alternative solutions must be found. And no longer do responsible leaders believe that merely offsetting their footprint is sufficient. Business leaders have recognised that they must be a part of the solution of decarbonising the aviation sector if they are to be accountable for the future actions of their firms.

Fortunately, options for sustainable flying are becoming increasingly available and developing rapidly with numerous breakthroughs achieved over the last year. In particular, Sustainable Aviation Fuels or SAF, are a clean substitute for fossil fuels produced from sustainable resources. To date over 100 leading-edge organizations have pledged their support to the Clean Skies for Tomorrow 2030 Ambition Statement to accelerate the supply and use of SAF technologies to reach 10% of global jet aviation fuel supply by 2030. The First Movers Coalition (FMC) aviation commitment pushed this objective a step deeper to help scale nascent but critical technologies, with commitments from companies to replace at least 5% of conventional jet fuel demand with SAF that reduces life-cycle GHG emissions by 85% or more when compared with conventional jet fuel, and/or by using zero-carbon emitting propulsion technologies by 2030.

Private sector has a role to play in using SAF

But why are such clear and bold demand signals necessary, and why do leaders from banks, accounting firms, healthcare, and elsewhere feel they have a role to play in procuring and using Sustainable Aviation Fuels?

Nearly 400,000 commercial flights have already been partially fuelled by Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). These ‘drop in’ fuels can be blended with conventional fuel and therefore require no changes to aircraft or airport infrastructure. They are produced from various by-products and have been shown to reduce GHG emissions by up to 80% over their full lifecycle. Some fuels are from biofuels such as municipal waste, agricultural residues and waste lipids. These fuels are only approved as true Sustainable Aviation fuels if the feedstocks and technologies do not threaten food security, result in direct or indirect land use change, or have significant emissions footprints. Further increasing the diversity of feedstocks, synthetic fuels have been produced using renewable electricity from wind, solar, hydropower and other green sources along with captured carbon dioxide. These Power-to-Liquids (PtL) offer great opportunities particularly as it changes the landscape of where aviation fuel can be produced. The recent Clean Skies for Tomorrow report demonstrated the vast potential and challenges of developing PtL.

The problem of wider adoption is two-fold: the cost and current limited supply of SAF. Today’s commercial production of sustainable aviation fuel makes up only approximately 0.01% of total jet fuel consumption – and the current pace of growth is nowhere near what it should be to both bring down the cost or scale sufficiently to meet global climate objectives. To incentivise investment into and production of SAF at scale, a strong and clear demand signal from airlines and those that purchase air travel is critical to reduce risk and give longer-term certainty to producers and investors.

The most sustainable option for long-haul flying

And so what of electric planes and hydrogen? These technologies certainly hold promise for enabling the sector to decarbonize in the long term. While the energy density of known battery technology will limit fully electric aircraft to distances of 600km, it could be a viable sustainable option for shorter flights or could be combined in a hybrid system to improve efficiency. Meanwhile, using hydrogen as a fuel could be a longer-term solution for mid and long-haul travel. However, a large hydrogen passenger plane is not expected to be ready to enter into service until the 2030s, and infrastructure needs will also need to be addressed. Given that the aircraft flying and being produced today can be expected to be in service for twenty or more years, sustainable aviation fuel is, therefore, the best and most promising option for reducing the bulk of aviation emissions that are caused by long-haul flights until 2050.

As with any new technology, the initial premium for SAF is high and investment in research and development is needed to commercially scale viable products plus discover alternatives. This requires a combination of supportive policies, market-based measures and private-sector initiatives.

From the private sector, companies like Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group and Bank of America have made public announcements about their purchase and commitment to fly on SAF in the coming years. As many such leaders will come together in Davos for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2022, these companies have been urged to purchase SAF for their travel to and from Switzerland, in instances where they can’t travel to the town by alternative methods such as by rail. Members of both the Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition, the First Movers Coalition, and all other WEF constituents who recognise their responsibility to the planet and future generations are urged to start changing how they travel and how they become part of the aviation energy transition today.

Aligning travel with the climate

For over 100 years aviation was fuelled by one source: jet engines using fossil fuel. Aviation is moving towards a diverse future in which aircraft fuel can come from a range of sustainable sources with a choice of propulsion technologies to ensure we can continue to derive the multiple benefits of travel in a climate-aligned way.

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