April 24, 2024

Environmental Defense Fund: Not All Sustainable Aviation Fuels Are Created Equal

by Mia Taylor
Last updated: 8:00 PM ET, Wed July 26, 2023

With each passing week, there are new headlines about the incremental steps being made in the aviation industry toward adopting sustainable aviation fuels.

In many ways, that’s good news at a time when the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly serious. Especially given the fact that aviation is responsible for driving 3.5 percent of human-related climate change impacts, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). If it were a country, aviation would be one of the top 10 greenhouse gas emitters in the world.

For that reason alone, adoption of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) is critically important. But there’s a key point that must be understood about these new fuels and it is this: Not all sustainable aviation fuels are created equal.

Some do more harm than good, says Pedro Piris-Cabezas, director of sustainable international transport and lead senior economist for EDF.

“We want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we want to do it in a way that doesn’t cause harm to ecosystems and people,” begins Piris-Cabezas.

TravelPulse recently sat down with Piris-Cabezas for a detailed discussion about the current realities of the sustainable aviation fuel industry, its shortcomings and reasons for hope.

Interest in sustainable travel is on the rise

Interest in sustainable travel is on the rise. (photo via horstgerlach / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

What is Sustainable Aviation Fuel?

When discussing sustainable aviation fuel and the processes involved in its production, as well as the source materials used to create such fuels, it’s easy to quickly get lost in the weeds. It’s a complex topic and not necessarily a subject that’s easy to distill for the average consumer.

At the most basic level, SAF is a fuel that can be produced from various alternative sources and mixed with conventional jet fuel to power planes, Piris-Cabezas explained in a recent blog post for EDF.

This type of fuel can be produced from biofuels made from waste materials like cooking oil or agricultural waste or even from synthetic e-fuels made from surplus renewable electricity, water and direct air capture carbon monoxide.

However, it’s important to understand that only sustainable aviation fuels produced with what Piris-Cabezas calls “high integrity” can help create a more sustainable future.

But what does high integrity mean exactly? To begin with, high-integrity SAF credibly reduces emissions compared to traditional fossil jet fuel and it adheres to strong environmental and social safeguards, explains Piris-Cabezas. It’s also fuel that’s been certified to be safe for use in aircraft by international standards organization ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials.)

SAF that’s truly beneficial or high integrity comes from a few specific sources. They can be fuels of biogenic origin or fuels made from hybrid feedstocks with both fossil and biogenic fractions, such as municipal solid waste. It could also come from green liquid hydrogen or recycled-carbon-based bio-processed fuels.

When all of these standards are met, the use of sustainable aviation fuels can drastically reduce the climate impact of flying. 

Unfortunately, not all SAF is produced from these sources, nor is it created with high integrity and transparency. The production of some aviation fuel for example has devastating unintended consequences on ecosystems and livelihoods, says Piris-Cabezas.

This includes sustainable aviation fuel that’s made with palm oil. Palm oil plantations are notorious for leading to the destruction of vast swaths of rainforest in order to plant the palm trees that are required to produce the oil.

“When demand for these kinds of fuels drives deforestation of the rainforest that would be an example of an unintended consequence and it has broader sustainability ramifications including ecosystem destruction and impacts on forest-dependent peoples,” explains Piris-Cabezas.

The demand for palm oil fuels can also drive up market prices for this particular commodity, which also has a negative impact on local communities who rely on this resource for their daily lives.

Still other so-called sustainable aviation fuels may be produced with landfill materials that include plastic waste. And when that fuel is produced or used I planes, it may effectively be emitting harmful elements into the air.

“Using trash or landfill materials might actually be detrimental to communities affected by production of that fuel and the environmental claims related to those types of fuels may not be real,” explains Piris-Cabezas.

These are just a few examples of less than desirable forms of SAF. And the reason why, as this industry moves forward, it’s important to have the proper safeguards and industry guidelines in place, says Piris-Cabezas.

airport, airfield, airplane, jet, sunset, landing, runway, London, Heathrow, UK

Airplane approaching the landing strip at London Heathrow Airport, UK. (photo via iStock/E+/stockcam)

The Challenge Ahead for Airlines 

While some steps are being made in the right direction with sustainable aviation fuel development, there’s also more than a few challenges to navigate.

For instance, at this early stage in the game, it can be difficult for airlines and policymakers to identify which sustainable aviation fuels on the market are made using high-integrity processes and which fuels are doing more harm than good for the planet because of how they’re being produced.

To help end users better assess sustainable fuel product, EDF recently published a High-Integrity SAF Handbook, a work that’s the culmination of more than eight years of research and analysis conducted by Piris-Cabezas.

The handbook is an effort to establish a framework for what constitutes sustainable aviation fuel production, thus leveling the playing field across the industry. As the handbook explains, this type of framework is necessary to “avoid unintended consequences on ecosystems and livelihoods.”

The book is meant to be a resource that can help fuel producers, airlines, policymakers, investors and companies understand and identify high-integrity SAF, create effective policy to support high-integrity SAF, and invest in and transition to high-integrity SAF.

“I wrote the guidebook to help stakeholders understand,” says Piris-Cabezas. “There are different pathways to produce sustainable aviation fuels. And we need to have a methodology establishing what is sustainable. I will be hitting the road next week to discuss the complexities around the methodologies around what is sustainable and what is not.”

Having dedicated years of his life to the handbook’s creation and now embarking on an effort to help spread its research and message, Piris-Cabezas is clearly passionate about the critical mission he’s focused on. It’s one he approaches with a mixture of urgency, realism, and optimism—as the opening of his handbook makes clear.

“The burden of climate change is affecting communities and regions around the world more clearly and more severely with each passing year and—as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned—our window to avert irreversible climate damage is closing fast. Still, there is reason for hope and time yet to act.”

Piris-Cabezas and the EDF are working to help ensure that the actions now being taken in the sustainable aviation fuel industry are thoughtful and transparent actions that will truly bring about needed change.

But even as important works like the handbook come to fruition, there are setbacks regularly emerging. For instance, the Republican-led U.S. Congress has been actively working to undermine the Inflation Reduction Act, an important environmental measure that includes components expressly designed to support development of sustainable aviation fuels.

“Now we see attempt in U.S. congress basically deconstructing the sustainability framework that’s part of the original Inflation Reduction Act for sustainable aviation fuels,” says Piris-Cabezas. “That could mean we risk making fuels in the U.S. from sources that have unintended consequences.”

There’s also inertia within the fuel production industry to do the right and there are players within the system who could have a detrimental impact.

These types of setbacks and obstacles can have serious consequences at what is now a critical juncture in the effort to address climate change. But Piris-Cabazas is doing his best to ensure progress continues to be and in such a way that is truly beneficial.

He is taking two approaches to doing that. The first is trying to convince stakeholders such as airlines, fuel producers and governments around the world to enhance the transparency of the production process and to adopt regulations surrounding production. And EDF is not the only entity trying to convince governments to adopt industry regulations.  The International Air Transport Association (IATA) also recently issued a statement calling upon
governments to create policies that foster and support increased
creation of sustainable aviation fuels.

The Role of Consumers

Piras-Cabezas has also made it his mission to try and raise awareness among consumers globally about the fact that not all sustainable aviation fuels are what they purport to be.

“We need to have end customers aware of this situation and aware of the fact that not everything is made equal and not all claims have same validity,” says Piris-Cabezas. “Consumers also need to understand that they have tremendous power as end customers. They can call upon service providers and ask them to ensure that transparency is adopted as a North Star in this industry.”

In other words, consumers can and should play a role in helping to keep progress on the right track when it comes to the development of high integrity sustainable aviation fuel. If the subset of travelers who are committed to supporting the development of sustainable travel were to join forces and demand transparency and accountability, they could be a significant force for positive change.

“We need to make sure this time we get it right from the beginning and that we don’t miss the chance to get the aviation sector on the right pathway for decarbonization,” concludes Piris-Cabezas. “When it comes to reducing the impact of the aviation industry, sustainable aviation fuels are not a silver bullet, but they are the key enabling technology that we have to reduce emission and decarbonize the sector.”

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