Sustainable Aviation Fuels: Decarbonization of Air Transport

Juan Miguel Perez, CEO
March 13, 2024

Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Aviation currently accounts for approximately 2 to 3% of global carbon emissions. According to IATA projections air travel is going to double by 2040.

IATA projections for air travel.

In a world increasingly focused on reducing carbon footprints, the aviation industry is soaring towards a greener horizon with the adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). Here's what sets SAF apart:

  • Diverse Feedstocks: SAF is produced from a variety of sources, including waste vegetable oils and agricultural residues. This flexibility in raw materials is crucial for the scalability and sustainability of SAF production.
  • Compatibility with Existing Engines: One of SAF's most compelling features is its ability to be used in current aircraft engines without the need for modifications. This compatibility accelerates the adoption of SAF across the aviation industry.
  • Potential to Reduce Emissions: SAF has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% over its lifecycle compared to traditional aviation fuels. This significant reduction is a cornerstone in the quest for net-zero emissions in aviation.

However, to ensure the environmental benefits of SAF, it's crucial to foster transparency and traceability throughout its production process. This involves:

  • Tracking the Production Process: From the origin of raw materials to the complete supply chain, meticulous tracking ensures a transparent reduction in carbon intensity.
  • Collaborative Frameworks: SAF producers and air carriers need to establish a collaborative framework to share and validate supply chain data. This collaboration is essential for substantiating the sustainability claims of both parties.

Our digital tracking solutions are crucial in guaranteeing the transparency and dependability of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) lifecycles, fostering a cooperative environment throughout its supply chain.

The Evolution and Importance of SAF: types, benefits and uses of each one

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) represents a significant advancement in the aviation industry’s journey towards a more environmentally friendly future. As the sector anticipates a substantial expansion by 2050, the role of SAF in reducing carbon emissions becomes increasingly vital. Here, we explore the evolution, types, and benefits of SAF, along with its practical applications.

Types and Benefits of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF):

  • Cooking Oil and Animal Waste Fat: These waste-derived feedstocks are converted into SAF, offering a sustainable second life for materials that would otherwise contribute to landfill waste.
  • Solid Waste: Municipal solid waste, including non-recyclable plastics, provides another source for SAF production, turning societal refuse into renewable energy.
  • Forestry and Agricultural Residues: Utilizing byproducts from forestry and agriculture not only minimizes waste but also leverages existing industries to create a circular economy.
  • Energy Crops: Specifically grown for fuel production, these crops are cultivated with sustainability in mind, ensuring minimal impact on food supply and biodiversity.

Key Advantages:

  • Reduced Carbon Footprint: SAF boasts a similar chemical composition to traditional jet fuels, yet it can reduce lifecycle carbon emissions by up to 80%, making it a cornerstone in the industry's carbon reduction strategy.
  • Compatibility and Safety: SAF can be blended with conventional jet fuel up to 50% without necessitating modifications to aircraft or refueling infrastructures, ensuring a smooth transition to greener operations.
  • Universal Application: All aircraft certified to use standard jet fuel specifications are cleared for SAF, which has already been distributed across multiple continents, marking a significant step in global adoption.

The integration of SAF into the aviation fuel mix represents a pivotal step in the industry's commitment to a sustainable future, ensuring that the skies remain open for travel while protecting the planet for generations to come.

Challenges and Solutions for SAF Adoption

While Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) stands as a beacon of hope for a greener aviation future, its path is strewn with challenges that must be navigated with strategic solutions. The aviation industry's commitment to reducing its carbon footprint through the use of SAF is clear, yet the production volume and economic factors present significant hurdles.

Production and Infrastructure Challenges:

  • Insufficient Production: With SAF production at approximately 200,000 metric tons in 2019, there is a stark contrast between available SAF and the aviation industry's total fuel consumption. The demand far outstrips the current supply, underscoring the need for a ramp-up in production capabilities.
  • Cost Barriers: The premium price of SAF, coupled with the nascent stage of production and distribution infrastructure, makes widespread adoption financially challenging for many airlines.

Solutions to Enhance SAF Production and Adoption:

  • Government Incentives: Implementing economic incentives such as subsidies or tax credits can significantly lower the cost barrier, making SAF a more attractive option for airlines.
  • Investment in Infrastructure: To address the scarcity of production facilities, substantial investment is required to establish and expand SAF production plants and distribution networks.
  • Streamlined Certification: Simplifying the standardization and certification processes will facilitate the introduction of SAF into the market, ensuring safety and performance standards are met efficiently.

Technical and Regulatory Challenges:

  • Ensuring Performance and Safety: SAF must meet rigorous performance and safety criteria to be viable for widespread use. This necessitates ongoing research and development to optimize SAF formulations for aviation requirements.
  • Complex Certification Requirements: The process of certifying new types of SAF is intricate, requiring a collaborative effort to streamline and expedite approvals.

Strategies for Technical Advancement and Compliance:

  • R&D Investment: Continued investment in research and development can lead to more efficient and cost-effective SAF production processes, enhancing its competitive edge against conventional jet fuels.
  • Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration: Industry, government, and academia need to work in concert to tackle the technical challenges and streamline the certification process, paving the way for swiffer SAF adoption.

Driving Demand and Meeting Goals:

  • Educational Initiatives: Increasing awareness about the environmental and operational benefits of SAF can stimulate market demand and support its broader adoption across the industry.
  • Policy Alignment: National and international policies must be aligned with economic incentives and sustainability criteria to promote the production of climate-beneficial SAF.
  • Global Collaboration: The international aviation community, including member states participating in CORSIA, must collaborate to ensure that SAF meets stringent sustainability criteria and contributes to the sector's net-zero ambitions.

    In summary, while the challenges to SAF adoption are formidable, they are not insurmountable. With targeted strategies and collaborative efforts, the aviation industry can overcome these obstacles, ultimately leading to a sustainable future that aligns with environmental goals and regulatory mandates. The commitment of administrations, such as the Biden administration's ambitious targets for SAF production and emissions reduction, is a testament to the global dedication to this crucial transition.

The Role of Government and Industry in Promoting SAF: Adoption and Infrastructure

The aviation industry's transition to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is a collaborative effort that hinges on the strategic alignment of government policies and industry initiatives. This synergy is crucial in establishing the necessary infrastructure and compliance timelines that will accelerate SAF deployment and contribute to the sector's net-zero ambitions by 2050.

The regulations on ensuring a level playing field for sustainable air transport (also known as the ReFuelEU aviation initiative) aim to increase the uptake of sustainable fuels by aircraft and ships to reduce their environmental footprint.

The proposals are part of the Fit for 55 legislative package, which aims to reduce the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030.

What will change with the Fit for 55 legislative package?

Fit for 55 and the aviation sector

  • Incentive programs, when paired with mandates, can expedite the integration of SAF by making it more economically viable for airlines. These incentives might take the form of tax credits, subsidies, or other financial mechanisms designed to lower the cost barrier associated with SAF production and adoption.
  • Implement the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) which is intended to be introduced from 2021, is initially (in its first phase to 2027) a voluntary scheme covering 66 countries and 80% of international aviation emissions.
  • The package proposes to revise several pieces of EU climate legislation, including the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) for aviation, which is a mandatory cap and trade mechanism that applies to intra-EEA flights. The monitoring and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions must be robust, transparent, consistent and accurate for the EU ETS to operate effectively.
  • Establishment of the Union Database for Biofuels (UDB) is based on Clean energy for all Europeans package &  Article 28 (2) and (4) of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) to Improve the traceability of gaseous and liquid fuels in Transport Sector with the objective to avoid double counting and mitigating the risks for irregularities/ fraud.

The EU ETS acts as a regulatory framework for emissions within the European Union, while CORSIA addresses emissions from international flights. The UDB supports these systems by ensuring the sustainability of biofuels, which are a key element in reducing aviation emissions. Sustainable aviation fuel, monitored by the UDB, can be used to reduce an airline's carbon footprint, thus affecting their obligations under both the EU ETS and CORSIA.

Our digital traceability solution, MARCO Track & Trace, helps companies comply with RED II regulations for various renewable energy products such as biofuels and hydrogen, each with specific emissions rules. Its flexibility allows adaptation to different traceability ecosystems, ensuring compliance with SAF, HVO, hydrogen, packaging, chemicals, steel, and more.

Timeline of renewable energy in the EU

  1. 20 November 2023 Revised Directive EU/2023/2413 entered into force
  2. 2022 REPowerEU Plan: new EC proposal to further raise the renewable energy target
  3. 2021 Fit for 55: EC proposal to revise the directive and raise the target for 2030 to 40%
  4. 2019 EU power production from wind and solar surpass coal for the first time
  5. 2018 Revised Renewable Energy Directive: 32% renewables target for 2030
  6. 2014 Onshore wind is cheap­er than coal, gas and nuclear energy
  7. 2009 Renewable Energy Directive: EU target of 20% renewables by 2020 and national binding targets
  8. 2008 Olmedilla Photovoltaic park (Spain) - largest power plant (60MW) in the world - generates enough to power 40 000 homes/year
  9. 2003 Directive on biofuels and renewable fuels for transport: national tar­gets for biofuels
  10. 2001 Directive on electricity production from renewables: national indicative targets
  11. 2000 First large-scale offshore wind farm (Denmark)
  12. 1997 Energy for the future: renewable sources of energy: indicative EU target of 12% renewables by 2010
  13. 1991 Germany introduces first feed-in-tarif for renewables

To meet the growing demand for aviation fuel and achieve the targeted reduction in emissions, the industry and governments must continue to push for robust policies and tangible support mechanisms. This includes grants and policies that encourage innovation and investment in SAF technologies and production facilities. The collective effort to advance SAF is not just about compliance but about ensuring that the aviation industry can sustain its growth while honoring its commitment to environmental stewardship.

Several European States have established national policy actions to promote the supply and use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). A European SAF Map is available at EUROCONTROL’s public website with a selection of pioneering industry initiatives of SAF use in Europe, based on publicly available information. 

EUROCONTROL map: SAF use in Europe

The U.S. Policies to Advance SAF

The California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (CA-LCFS) aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in transportation. It assigns values to carbon reduction from renewable fuels, including SAF recognized since 2019. The benefits of SAF are measured through life cycle assessment, and credits earned can incentivize its production and be sold to others.

The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), established in 2005 and updated in 2007, focuses on increasing renewable fuel use in ground transportation. SAF can opt-in, generating compliance units known as RINs. Currently, SAF generates 1.6 RINs per gallon, aiming to enhance its competitiveness without mandates.

The U.S. Sustainable Skies Act, introduced in May 2021, incentivizes the use of SAF. Credits up to $2/gallon are offered for high-GHG-saving SAF, provided it meets ICAO sustainability standards. Additionally, a $1 billion grant over 5 years is allocated to expand SAF facilities.

The Biden Administration's newly announced SAF policies set a goal to produce 3 billion gallons/year of SAF by 2030. These include a proposed tax credit to reduce costs and increase production, funding for SAF projects and producers, and collaboration with international partners for global SAF availability.

SAF Accounting and Supply Chain Transparency to Support the Energy Transition

In the pursuit of a more sustainable future for aviation, the importance of robust SAF accounting and supply chain transparency cannot be understated. These measures are foundational to the credibility and effectiveness of the energy transition in aviation. Here, we examine the mechanisms that support these processes:

Book and Claim Mechanism:

  • Verified Information Flow: The Book and Claim system facilitates the flow of verified information about the production of clean fuels, such as SAF. This model is critical for sectors like aviation, where the physical mixing of sustainable and conventional fuels is logistically complex.
  • Emissions Savings: Through this system, companies can "book" emissions reductions when they purchase SAF, and "claim" these benefits in their climate disclosures, even if the SAF is not used in their own flights.
  • Certificates and Registry: SAF certificates represent the lifecycle emissions reductions and are tracked in a registry, ensuring each certificate is unique and accounted for, thus preventing double counting and ensuring transparency.

Mass Balance Approach:

  • Sustainability Verification: The physical supply chain for SAF is independently verified against sustainability criteria, ensuring that the production process adheres to stringent environmental standards.
  • Chain of Custody: A mass balance approach maintains the chain of custody, documenting the quantities of sustainable and conventional fuels throughout the supply chain to provide an auditable trail for GHG accounting and ESG reporting.
  • Regulatory Assurance: Policymakers and regulatory authorities are instrumental in creating a framework that incentivizes the production and use of SAF, by reducing costs and enhancing sustainability.

    By integrating Finboot's systems into the broader framework of aviation regulation and industry practices, the aviation sector can ensure that its transition to sustainable aviation fuels is not just a goal but a tangible reality backed by verifiable environmental benefits. Finboot offers end-to-end traceability solutions for complex industrial supply chains using blockchain technology, creating a digital enterprise ecosystem. These decentralized systems provide crucial product information to relevant stakeholders, empowering the aviation sector to meet regulatory requirements and enhance traceability for sustainable operations. 

Through digital innovation, Finboot assists industries like petrochemicals, oil, and gas in achieving sustainability goals and maintaining traceable operations, ensuring compliance with regulation standards, and facilitating data management, sharing, and traceability.

Our digital traceability solutions are underpinned by 4 flagship features:

  • Automated Mass Balance: streamline your record keeping for sustainability credit, and bring traceability from feedstock to final product to batch-level granularity. 
  • GHG Emissions: track and trace your supply chain emissions, obtaining a final measure of a product’s emission footprint that is broken down for the emissions caused by each part of the supply chain. 
  • Scheme regulation: simplify document creation and management. Easily configure and create sustainability declarations, and other supply chain documentation based on data readily available in your traceability ecosystem. 
  • Digital Product Passports: bring all your product and value chain data together in one place to share with clients, regulators, and consumers in the form of interactive Digital Product Passports. 

The Cepsa Case: Digital Product Passports in Chemical Supply Chains

Finboot has been working with Cepsa – a global energy company with a diverse portfolio spanning oil and gas and petrochemicals – since the start of 2023. 

Finboot’s MARCO Track & Trace has allowed Cepsa to implement digital traceability systems for tracking each batch of vegetable oil from its origin to its use in biodegradable surfactant production, in addition to automating bookkeeping and determining what percentage of output is from renewable and circular inputs.

The Amber Case: Blockchain Case Study: ‘Digital Traceability of Renewable Energy’ Finboot & Amber

We’ve teamed up with Amber to develop a traceable ecosystem for renewable energy (like solar or wind), tracking it from source to end user using blockchain technology. This solution ensures accurate verification of energy origin and usage, enhancing certification reliability by securely recording and validating Digital Guarantees of Origin (GOs) to prevent industry issues like 'double spending'.

The Repsol Case: Full Traceability of net-zero emissions fuels (HVO) 

Repsol has been a client since 2018 and uses our digital traceability solutions extensively across several business areas. They use our digital ecosystems for the traceability of low-carbon fuels like HVO (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil), and circular chemical products like packaging.

The SABIC Case: Blockchain to Deliver Sustainable Packaging 

SABIC, the global leader in the chemicals industry, becomes the first in their industry to unlock batch-level traceability from waste to packaging for their TRUCIRCLE products through MARCO Track and Trace.

The project, with advanced recycling pioneer Plastic Energy and packaging specialist Intraplás, uses the Finboot application to support end-to-end digital traceability of circular feedstock in customer products.

Conclusion and Future Outlook for Energy Transition in the Aviation Industry

The aviation industry is actively transitioning to renewable, low-carbon alternatives, driven by governmental support, increased biofuel adoption, and technological advancements. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) stands as a cornerstone in this transition, offering significant emission reductions and compatibility with existing aircraft. Challenges such as production scaling and cost remain, but with advancing technology and collaborative efforts, SAF's potential as a vital component of eco-friendly aviation becomes more evident.

Crucially, ensuring the credibility and effectiveness of this transition relies on robust SAF accounting and transparent supply chains. Transparent supply chains are essential to enhance traceability and integrity in the biofuels market, preventing issues such as double counting and fraud. Collaboration among policymakers, industry stakeholders, and the public is imperative for achieving lower emissions and fostering a sustainable aviation future.

Download the first ebook in a series that explores fuels and technologies driving the energy transition in land, air, and sea transport.