Business Aviation Market Intelligence

Sustainable Business Aviation Needs SAF, And More

Sustainable Business Aviation Needs SAF, And More

Before electric aircraft or Harry Potter’s flying broom becomes a reality, achieving net-zero targets in the aviation industry globally by 2050 still sounds like an ambitious goal – as long as people need to fly. With fewer transportation options when it comes to flying with fuel, the aviation sector is struggling to decarbonize.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) as a drop-in replacement for conventional jet fuel is regarded as the most effective way in the next five to ten years to cut air transport emissions, says a World Bank report entitled The Role of Sustainable Aviation Fuels in Decarbonizing Air Transport. Asian Sky Group talked with fuel producers, OEMs, operators, airport authorities and lawyers to try and find out if SAF is the way forward.

SAF as the most effective way

SAF is made from a range of feedstocks such as biomass, waste products, natural oils, fats and other carbon sources, which can reduce emissions by up to 80% over the fuel’s life lifecycle compared with conventional jet fuel made from crude oil. It is a drop-in product that can be put into aircraft without the need to upgrade fueling facilities, engines or airframes.

“It (SAF) is central to the industry’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, particularly for long haul flights where emerging alternative technologies are currently limited,” said Heidi Hauf, Regional Sustainability Lead APAC, Boeing. The global aviation industry accounted for 2.1% of all human-generated carbon dioxide emissions in 2019, and was 12% of all transport-related CO2 emissions according to the Air Transport Action Group. As the world returns to normal in the wake of COVID-19, aviation carbon emissions are expected to grow. The scale of SAF production in 2022 is also predicted to double the 2021 volume of 100 million liters.

While business aviation produces approximately 2% of all aviation emissions and 0.04% of global man-made emissions, a heated debate is also ongoing amongst politicians in various countries, who argue that private jets should be abandoned due to their oversized environmental footprint.

One of the countries already taking action is France, which has banned domestic flights on routes that provide alternative ground transport, and it is also considering raising taxes on private jets. This is despite opposing views on the social and economic benefits of business aviation, as well as the number of jobs it has created.

“Business aviation has the highest urgency to act and to show that the sector is taking meaningful steps to decarbonize, also to justify the role of business aviation,” said Sami Jauhiainen, Vice President APAC, Renewable Aviation at Neste, a company producing SAF which can reduce up to 80% of greenhouse emissions over its lifecycle compared to using jet A1 fuel.

Jauhiainen noted a growing awareness of aviation’s role in climate change around the world, which is expected to grow in the coming decades, saying that some business aviation companies have shown willingness to pay for SAF to reduce their emissions, regardless of its low supply and high cost.

Mission impossible?

Unlike conventional jet fuel, the SAF market is relatively new. The lack of infrastructure for producing and distributing the fuel available globally has contributed to the low supply and high cost of SAF, making net-zero in aviation a seemingly impossible mission to accomplish, at least in the short term.

One of the biggest challenges to overcome before SAF can be mass-produced is the availability of feedstocks that go into its production. These are currently scattered all around the world, making the sourcing process harder for fuel producers. Despite this, continued research and development is ongoing to try and bring the costs associated with SAF production down.

Believing that SAF is the “only substantial way” to reduce emissions, Boeing takes a holistic approach to decarbonization as SAF is central to their renewable energy transition strategy while supported by fleet renewal, operational efficiencies and advanced technologies. “We’re working with commercial and government partners across six continents to research, develop, certify and commercialize new SAF pathways and better understand suitable feedstocks,” said Hauf.

“The lack of infrastructure for producing and distributing the fuel available globally has contributed to the low supply and high cost of SAF, making net-zero in aviation a seemingly impossible mission to accomplish, at least in the short term.”

The costs associated with purchasing SAF are the biggest “hurdle” for operators according to Jauhiainen, although he says that demand for it has been increasing. His company, Neste, is expanding its SAF production facility beyond Finland to also include Singapore and the Netherlands, aiming to increase SAF production capacity to 1.5 million tons (around 1.875 billion liters) annually by the end of 2023.

When it comes to adopting the usage of SAF, the European Union (EU) and North America markets are a few years ahead of the rest of the world. The EU is considering requiring all member states to blend biofuels into their transportation fuels and to offer free carbon credits to help reduce the cost of SAF. In the US, several tax incentives and programs to increase domestic production of clean biofuels have been introduced as part of President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.

In Asia-Pacific, Japan, Singapore, and New Zealand have also started exploring means to expand production and use of SAF with government-backed initiatives. “Probably its role is only set to increase going forward,” said Jauhiainen, highlighting the role of the Asia-Pacific as a large jet fuel consumer.

“Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) usage in business aviation in Hong Kong, Greater China, and Asia is still in the early stages. The use of SAF in business aviation is still limited in the region, with a small number of operators experimenting with it on a limited basis,” said Jenny Lau, President of Sino Jet and Chairwoman of the Asian Business Aviation Association (AsBAA).

“As all countries are now seeing the importance of (reducing) carbon emissions, there is a need for governments to provide incentives to support the required infrastructure needed to make SAF, reduce costs and promote a greener fuel supply,” said Chris Barrow, Director of Flight Operations, Hong Kong Business Aviation Centre (HKBAC). “This is in the interest of all parties and removes the burden of higher costs for greener fuel supplies.”

Over in Australia, Boeing, Virgin, QANTAS and others as members of the industry body Sustainable Aviation Fuel Australia and New Zealand Council (SAFAANZ), is supporting the government to establish a council to unite industry stakeholders and support the domestic SAF industry. The Hong Kong Airport Authority also expressed support for airlines at Hong Kong International Airport to transition to SAF.

From a technical aspect, current regulations only permit commercial aircraft to use up to a 50/50 mix of SAF and regular kerosene. Companies including Emirates, Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce have conducted trial flights using 100% SAF.

However, more technical questions need to be answered as the industry moves towards adopting 100% SAF on an engine that was designed to consume conventional jet fuel, said a spokesperson from Rolls-Royce. The engine manufacturer plans to prove compatibility of all its current civil engines with 100% SAFs by the end of 2023.

The company, which provides business jets engines for Bombardier, Gulfstream and Dassault, said the compatibility of SAF with the seals of aircraft engines or fuel tanks needs to be assured and the benefits of the fuel with slightly lower density and higher calorific value have to be quantified.

SAF is not a silver bullet
While governments, investors, fuel companies, and operators are fully aware of the importance and potential of SAF, and expect its cost to decrease with more advanced production technology when a mature global SAF market takes shape. And whilst work is ongoing, industry leaders agree that the aviation industry needs collaborative efforts from all stakeholders in the sector and to look at novel ways to reduce emissions.

Patrick Hansen, Chief Executive Officer of Luxaviation is optimistic about the future of sustainable business aviation, he believes that companies need to set clear and achievable targets in a timely manner.

“We have to decarbonize business aviation and it will be possible. It might not happen globally in the next few years by using SAF only because there is a shortage of it and we should not fool ourselves that SAF was the immediate remedy,” said Hansen. “Full decarbonization in two years is a great marketing slogan but is far from possible reality. Having said that, we must and we will try hard,” he said.

“SAF is a positive development for the industry, but it’s not the silver bullet when it comes to climate change.”

James Jordan, a partner at HFW who specializes in the aviation sector, commented on the risk of sustainability becoming merely an advertising slogan.

Stressing the risk of companies engaging in “greenwashing,” Jordan said some fuel producers describe their fuels as sustainable even if they contain conventional jet fuel materials made using traditional processes. Operators and end users of SAF should understand the sustainable element of the SAF they purchase in order to avoid legal issues when making sustainability claims to their customers.

As the building of physical infrastructure to produce and distribute SAF globally is going to take time and a significant amount of capital investment, a combination of all the solutions are needed, for example government regulations, SAF book and claim systems, greener airport operation, as well as hydrogen powered and electric aircraft for short-haul flights.

“Jet-fuelled propulsion is probably never going to be truly ‘green.’ But there is a lot that can be done within the aviation ecosystem to make everything else sustainable,” said Jordan. “SAF is a positive development for the industry, but it’s not the silver bullet when it comes to climate change. SAF is still fuel. It still emits carbon when burned. SAF is a significant step forwards on the journey towards a carbon-neutral future for aviation, but it is not the end.”