Understanding the Debates Around Sustainable Aviation Fuel

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With roughly 100,000 airline flights every single day, aviation contributes more than 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Of aviation’s CO2 emissions, 71% come from commercial passenger travel, demand for which is growing at breakneck speed: the World Travel and Tourism Council predicts the number travelers will grow on average by just under 6% annually to 2032

Sustainable aviation fuel is widely regarded as a key solution for helping to decarbonize this vital sector, and yet its development is not simple. Although it can deliver up to an 80% greenhouse gas emission reduction over conventional jet fuel (calculated by taking into account the entire life cycle of the fuel – from raw material extraction to consumption – and comparing it to similar emissions from fossil jet fuel) at this point in time, SAF accounts for less than 1% of global jet fuel demand. This is because it is much more expensive today than fossil-based jet fuel. 

To help spur the expansion of sustainable aviation fuel in the United States, the Biden administration announced in 2019 the SAF Grand Challenge, a plan to power aviation entirely with 35 billion gallons of biofuels. A key challenge for sustainable aviation fuel is the source of the feedstock. Crop-based fuels divert land that would otherwise be used to grow food we eat, destroying wildlife habitat in the process. A 2022 study funded in part by the Department of Energy found that corn-based ethanol is overall worse for the climate than gasoline. 

Recognizing this, advocacy groups have been working to ensure that this plan, along with provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act to accelerate SAF production, do not incentivize the widespread use of fuels made from food crops like corn and soy.

To understand the various ways sustainable aviation fuel is produced, check out this new and easy-to-understand report published by Twelve, Know Your SAF. Twelve is a company producing a range of products from CO2-based elements instead of fossil fuels. The company’s process delivers carbon suitable for creating common manufacturing chemicals without using crude oil, gas, or coal through a kind of artificial photosynthesis

The report provides simple explanations for the different pathways for producing sustainable aviation fuel: the “corn way,” the “garbage way,” the “fats way,” and the “air way.” Tomorrow’s Air partner Neste makes its sustainable aviation fuel “the fats way” and is also putting research and development funding into the “air way” described in the report.

Find out more about sustainable aviation fuel in Tomorrow’s Air stories

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