By Julien Etchanchu, Managing Consultant
As business travel begins to pick back up, corporates are looking for the most sustainable airline partners. Is biofuel the answer to reducing the environmental impact of travel?
Nearly every sector of the global economy has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but for the airline industry, this has been a challenge like no other. In addition to a huge decrease in air traffic (-60% vs. 2019), airlines are facing yet another new threat: a major shift in their customer’s behavior. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry was at a crossroads – facing the “flyshame” movement and increasing pressure to adopt stricter sustainability standards. And now major corporates like Microsoft, BCG, and L’Oréal are planning to reduce their business travel by 30 to 50%.
In this complicated context, many airlines are turning to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and counting on the associated decrease in CO2 emissions to convince travelers that they can fly sustainably. The question remains – will SAF be the answer to reducing the carbon footprint of air travel?
The challenges of producing SAF
The most common type of SAF comes from organic material and is typically known as biofuel. First-generation biofuels – like wheat, rapeseed, corn, and beet – are not the sustainable solution the airline industry is looking for. In order to feed the global airline industry alone, 280 million hectares (representing 18% of agriculture worldwide) would need to be dedicated to biofuel production. Currently, 40% of all corn grown in the United States is used to produce bioethanol for cars, so it’s easy to see why it isn’t a feasible solution for the air industry. Even more important to note is that just because something is a biofuel doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. For example, the carbon footprint of palm oil is 2.5 times higher than kerosene. When you take into account the full production life cycle – from extraction to combustion – the deforestation caused by the production of palm oil makes it worse than some fossil fuels.
The challenges of using biofuel do not end with agriculture-based solutions. Take hydrogen fuel as an example. Even though it’s the most abundant element in the universe, it does not exist in nature in its pure state. Because of this fact, 95% of global hydrogen production is powered by fossil fuels, representing 2.5% of total worldwide carbon dioxide emissions – nearly as much as the global airline industry. Producing “green” hydrogen requires a non-fossil energy source to isolate the element. However, producing large enough volumes to feed the airline industry would require massive amounts of power.
Airbus announced they are working on developing hydrogen-fueled aircraft by 2030 or 2035, but many more years (or possibly decades) will be needed before worldwide fleets are all hydrogen-based, and probably even longer if we hope to see 100% green electricity to produce the hydrogen fuel. And while some have suggested electricity-powered aircraft as a solution to the challenges of biofuel, that would bring its own set of challenges, especially battery weight, and is not a short- or medium-term solution.
Lastly, the cost of SAF is very high. Without economies of scale, the price of SAF is on average five times higher than standard fossil kerosene. Only a few airports worldwide have the infrastructure to provide significant volumes of SAF, and since it’s still a fledgling industry, airline’s goals for converting their fleets are very modest. For example, Air France plans to use 2% SAF by 2025 and just 5% by 2030.
Promising alternatives – an industry moving in the right direction
From a technological standpoint, sustainable aviation fuels already work with aircraft engines in use today. It’s not a matter of need to further develop the technology, it’s a matter of finding sustainable ways to produce the amount we need at scale. All SAFs are not created equal, and some of them are particularly attractive to the airline industry – like fuel produced from cooking oil, which emits 25 times less CO2 than fuel made of palm oil. These “second-generation” SAFs are the type that industry should start utilizing on a wider scale. Companies leading the production of these more efficient fuels (like SkyNRG) and airlines already using SAF (Air France-KLM, United, Alaska Airlines, SAS, Finnair, etc…) are globally promoting these more sustainable raw materials.
Even though a true migration to SAF will take some time, most airlines are accelerating their commitments. Delta has pledged to buy 50 million liters of SAF over the next 20 years. Likewise, several airlines (Lufthansa, Finnair) propose that their customers buy SAF during the booking process – and some are hoping for a similar model to emerge with their corporate travel clients. Some organizations are setting aggressive sustainability goals and working with airlines to achieve them. For example, Microsoft signed a deal with both KLM and Alaska Airlines in which the tech giant committed to buying enough SAF to cover all their employees’ flights between the US and the Netherlands, and between Seattle and California.
There are other promising projects in the works, like the Sun-To-Liquid project, co-financed by Switzerland and the European Union, in which scientists managed to produce kerosene with sun rays, water, and CO2. Even though this is far from being a large-scale solution, in a world where no one is 100% sure when peak oil will be reached, these types of innovations may be part of our eventual independence from fossil fuels.
The never-ending rebound effect
Sometimes called “the rebound effect,” the Jevons paradox (named the English economist who first described the phenomenon) asserts that the more energy-efficient a technology becomes, the more the total energy consumption increases. He observed that the less coal a locomotive needed, the greater distances they would cover, thereby increasing the total coal consumption overall. In today’s world, we can observe the paradox occurring in the airline industry. Over the past 30 years, aircraft have become dramatically more energy efficient with a decrease of 55% fuel burnt by person/km. Unfortunately, over the same time period, air traffic has increased by 125%, all but wiping out the progress made by more efficient engines. It’s safe to say that the industry’s key sustainability initiatives – CO2 emissions reduction, SAF usage, and more efficient aircraft – won’t make much of a difference if the world continues to see a rise in air traffic.
Even in light of the Jevons Paradox, SAF will likely play a major role in the industry’s decarbonization. This unprecedented crisis that the global travel industry is facing offers the airline sector a unique opportunity that not many industries get: to reinvent itself. What’s at stake is not only the survival of the airline industry but also the wellbeing of the planet. If the airlines take the right step here, they may become one of the most environmentally conscious transportation industries at the table – and SAF has a big role to play.