The aviation industry, a vital artery of global connectivity, faces a climate crossroads. Its current emission trajectory, now accounting for 2-3% of global CO2, has become a source of great environmental concern. With the long lifespan of aeroplanes and limited number of pathways to reduce emissions, the challenge facing the aviation industry is considerable. Sustainable aviation, with its focus on reducing emissions and adopting innovative fuels and technologies, is a promising option for a greener future in air travel.

But how ready are these technologies for commercial use, and can businesses forget their operational efficiency and planning improvement initiatives if zero-emission, last-minute air shipments are around the corner?

The Rise of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs)

SAF is a broad term referring to fuels that have comparable properties to conventional jet fuel, but with a smaller carbon footprint. SAF can be produced in a number of different ways, including transforming biomass and feedstock into jet fuel. SAFs are a ‘drop-in’ fuel, meaning they can be used by existing aircraft without any modifications. Approved for blending up to 50% with conventional jet fuel, SAFs boast an impressive emission reduction of up to 80% on a lifecycle basis.

While still in its early stages, the SAF market is experiencing rapid growth, tripling production in 2022. While hydrogen and electric propulsion technologies have attracted great investment and attention, the speed with which SAFs are being developed and the immediacy of deployment makes SAFs the clear frontrunner for decarbonising air travel in the short-term.

Are SAFs sustainable?

For a fuel to be considered “sustainable” it must meet specific criteria. These include a lifecycle emissions reduction, no competition with food crops or water supplies and not being responsible for any deforestation. Unlike fossil fuels, where carbon is newly released, SAFs re-release carbon absorbed by their feedstock biomass, creating a “closed loop.” However, not all biofuels qualify as SAFs. This qualification is dependent on the assessment of its carbon lifecycle and the overall ecological balance.

Challenges for SAFs

Despite their promise, challenges persist. Notwithstanding rapid growth, production currently meets a fraction (0.1%) of global jet fuel consumption, servicing only a fraction of the aviation market. Cost remains a formidable headwind, with SAF currently two to seven times more expensive than conventional jet fuel. Passing these costs onto consumers could inflate airfares by 18% by 2050.Concerns also remain regarding the potential deforestation and competition for food crops if SAF production scales to meet the industry’s vast fuel demand. Therefore, while SAFs are a crucial element in the transition to net zero, they are not a standalone solution. With supply concerns ever present, investment and development of other initiatives must remain a priority.

Impacts of sustainable aviation on business

The requirement to shift towards sustainable aviation presents both challenges and opportunities for businesses reliant on air travel or freight. This shift demands a strategic review of operations and supply chains to navigate the evolving landscape effectively. Potential impacts on businesses include:

  • Supply chain re-assessment: Businesses must review where they use aviation and set targets for reduction through more effective supply chain planning, transport mode review, adapting sourcing strategies, and further adoption of digital solutions.
  • Cost considerations: Transitioning the supply chain may involve initial costs and operational adjustments, and adopting SAFs currently results in an OPEX (operational expenditure) increase
  • Consumer and stakeholder expectations: Meeting the demands of eco-conscious consumers and stakeholders is vital, necessitating effective communication of sustainability commitments
  • Regulatory navigation: Staying compliant with evolving sustainable aviation regulations becomes crucial, with potential penalties for non-compliance
  • Industry competition: Sustainability practices become a key competitive factor, reshaping the landscape for businesses in sectors linked to air travel or freight
  • Risk management: The shift introduces new risks, from supply chain or SAF availability disruptions to regulatory changes, demanding evaluations of risk and mitigation strategies

The move towards sustainable aviation introduces a series of challenges and considerations for businesses beyond the short-term. By embracing SAFs and optimising operational efficiency, businesses can reduce their carbon footprint, align with evolving consumer expectations, and comply with emerging regulations. While air freight is likely to remain a constant for many businesses into the future, operational efficiencies and strategic decision-making can reduce reliance on it.

Alternative technologies – electric and hydrogen-powered aviation

While electric and hydrogen-powered aviation hold promise to contribute towards a sustainable future, they face short-term feasibility challenges. Electric aviation, relying on batteries, is confronted with limitations in energy density and weight, restricting its range and capacity for larger aircraft. Additionally, the lack of infrastructure, including charging stations, impedes its current feasibility. Hydrogen-powered aviation currently relies heavily on fossil fuels for production. Hydrogen also faces challenges with refuelling infrastructure and concerns around storage safety.

Both alternative technologies demand significant investment to evolve. Despite hurdles, ongoing research and development in electric and hydrogen technologies continues, demonstrating belief in their future potential. However, their near-term commercial viability remains constrained, emphasising the role of SAFs in reducing emissions in the aviation sector in the short-term. Click here to read our discussion on the practicalities and challenges facing hydrogen in the transport sector.

Sustainable aviation represents a vital pathway towards reducing the environmental impact of the aviation industry. With the potential to significantly reduce emissions, Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) offer a bridge between traditional jet fuels and the future of electric- and hydrogen-powered aviation. Despite the emission-reducing potential of these solutions, significant cost, scalability, and supply challenges remain. In the short-term, SAF alone will not be sufficient in enabling a net zero future for aviation and businesses should concurrently seek opportunities to reduce their use of aviation. However, with increased SAF production and continued investment and development in a variety of solutions, there is a route to an aviation sector that benefits both the environment and businesses alike.

Author: James Byrne

Judith Richardson

Managing Principal

sustainability.uk@argonandco.com

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