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Sustainable aviation fuel: A recipe for cleaner flight

Sustainable aviation fuel: A recipe for cleaner flight

A new generation of sustainable aviation fuel is being made from recycled materials like cooking oil or municipal waste. In comparison to fossil fuels, they can reduce CO2 emissions by 80%.

Technological innovation has changed many aspects of aviation in recent decades, significantly improving the sustainability of flight. Today, aircraft emit 80% fewer CO2 emissions per seat kilometre than they did 50 years ago. Despite the industry’s progress, however, one crucial element of aviation has remained relatively unchanged: fossil-based aircraft fuel. 

Cleaner alternative propulsion technologies, such as electric, hybrid-electric and hydrogen, are under development. However,  as they are unlikely to be commercially available until the 2030s, more immediate solutions are required. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) can help.

 

Sustainable aviation fuels are made from renewable raw material. Today most commonly used feedstocks are crops based or used cooking oil and animal fat.

 

Lignocellulosic feedstocks (such as forestry or agricultural wastes and residues) will also enter into SAF production alongside Municipal Solid Wastes (MSW) or Algae. Promising technologies (such as electro-fuels) based on carbon from waste gases or direct air capture combined with Hydrogen obtained from renewable energy will complete the picture of all the SAF potentials.

In comparison to fossil fuels, SAF can reduce lifecycle CO2 emissions by 80%.

Crucially, SAF is a ‘drop-in’ fuel. Because its chemical and physical characteristics are almost identical to those in conventional aviation fuel, the two can be safely mixed. Neither the supply infrastructure nor the aircraft themselves require any adaptation. That flexibility has already seen SAF used in more than 300,000 flights since 2011. 

13 climate action

 

Contributing to sustainability targets

SAF is an important part of aviation’s path towards more sustainable flight. In combination with other initiatives, such as new materials and enhanced air traffic management, it can help the industry meet its decarbonisation targets (as per the Air Transport Action Group's CO2 emission goals committed to in 2008). These include: 

  •  Improving the fuel efficiency of the worldwide fleet by an average of 1.5% per annum between 2009 and 2020. This first target has been achieved with more than 2% CO2 reduction per annum throughout the period.

  • From 2020, aviation will compensate CO2 emissions (over the 2019 emissions baseline). This means that even though air travel is increasing, CO2 emissions will be mitigated;

  • Net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050: The long-term climate goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 supports the Paris Agreement's 1.5ºC goal.

Despite these benefits, adoption of SAF has been limited so far. This isn’t for lack of intent: airlines have committed to forward purchase agreements for around six billion litres of SAF. In 2020 SAF production was around 190,000 tonnes – which remains less than 0.1% of the industry’s total fuel consumption. A major barrier is price, as SAF is two to three times the cost of fossil fuel. The industry believes that achieving between 1.4% to 3.7% of global jet fuel from non-fossil sources by 2025 could create a tipping point for production and cost of SAF.

 

Driving progress in sustainable aviation fuel

Airbus recognises the importance of driving progress in SAF and it plays a key role in our long-term decarbonisation strategy. Airbus was the first manufacturer to offer customers the option of delivering new aircraft with a blend of SAF. Multiple airlines have benefited from this programme, developed in association with Air BP and Total. We are also heavily involved in the ITAKA European initiative, which aims to speed up the commercialisation of sustainable aviation fuel in Europe. Airbus is also working with other industry players to increase the certified percentage blend of SAF from the current 50% to 100%. And as part of the overall long-term strategy to decarbonise Airbus' industrial operations, SAF has been progressively introduced to power the Beluga fleet since December 2019. 

Beluga ST

In December 2019, Beluga ST is starting to use Sustainable Aviation Fuel in Hamburg. The sustainable fuel used for the Beluga fleet comes from used cooking oil