Ringfencing waste oils for jet fuel won’t benefit the climate, researcher says

The European Commission's proposed ReFuelEU Aviation regulation mandates that planes uptake a set percentage of sustainable aviation fuel when refuelling at EU airports. [MikeDotta / Shutterstock.com]

Using biofuels from waste lipids to meet the EU’s proposed sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) mandate will leave a shortfall in other transport sectors, erasing any net climate benefit, Chelsea Baldino of the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) has said.

Baldino, a researcher with the independent non-profit organisation, told EURACTIV that the European Commission’s proposed ReFuelEU Aviation legislation could see green fuels made from cooking oil and animal fats diverted from decarbonising the road sector to the aviation sector.

“Regardless of which sector these waste oils go to, their potential has been maxed out,” she said, referencing the difficulty of increasing the supply of waste feedstock to meet demand.

The proposed ReFuelEU Aviation regulation, tabled in July as part of European Commission plans to halve EU emissions by 2030, mandates that planes uptake a set percentage of SAF when refuelling at EU airports.

Under the proposals, the jet fuel mix must contain 2% SAF by 2025, scaling up to 5% by 2030. Renewable electro-fuels are sub-mandated to make up at least 0.7% of this SAF mix by 2030.

However, e-fuels are not yet commercially available and crop-based biofuels are prohibited as a feedstock to produce jet fuels, leaving advanced biofuels as the only available means to produce SAFs in the coming years.

EU green jet fuel proposal shuns crop-based biofuels, focuses on next generation

Proposed EU legislation aimed at cutting flight emissions by ramping up the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) has excluded the use of first-generation biofuels, arguing they bring “limited environmental benefits”.

Under the Commission’s proposal, feedstocks set out in Annex 9 of the Renewable Energy Directive are considered green fuel sources. Part A of Annex 9 lists agricultural waste feedstock, while Part B contains two waste lipids: used cooking oil and certain animal fats.

Currently, waste lipids are the only commercially viable feedstock to refine into aviation fuel. Fuel produced from used cooking oil is cheaper than the alternatives, making waste-based fuels attractive to meet the proposed SAF targets.

“[This kind of green jet fuel] is much, much less costly than other SAFs… it’ll be really easy for producers to just meet the mandate that way,” said Baldino.

As a result, ICCT is concerned that the SAF mandate will be met entirely with used cooking oil and animal fats, essentially ringfencing these waste lipids for aviation fuel at the expense of deploying them to cut emissions from cars and ships.

Instead, Baldino wants to see the Commission stimulate the production of green jet fuels using other feedstocks, such as municipal solid waste and forestry residues.

“If we’re simply allowing waste lipids to go to the aviation sector until 2035, then what’s going to happen after that when the ambition of the Commission’s proposal really increases? There will be a gap, as we didn’t allow for the ramp up of the other technologies,” she said, highlighting that industry will be less likely to invest in more costly refining technology if needs can be met solely with waste feedstocks.

This view is shared by the European Waste-based & Advanced Biofuels Association (EWABA), who has called on the Commission to promote scalable technologies to meet SAF production goals, such as alcohol-to-jet and higher e-fuel targets.

While not yet mature, these novel technologies can draw on abundant feedstocks compared to waste lipids.

“The EU should follow a holistic approach across the transport sector because otherwise the direct diversion of waste lipids to aviation would result in a major step back in the Commission’s efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and aviation’s flight pathway to a net zero future by 2050,” Leonidas Kanonis, director for communications and analysis at EWABA, told EURACTIV.

“Feedstock availability is already a major issue for several of our members that can’t find waste lipids to process in their plants. The situation if and when waste-based-HEFA gets a ringfenced EU market via a blending mandate would become beyond critical as soon as the mandate enters into force,” he added.

Kanonis pointed to other European countries whose national SAF strategies differ from that of the Commission: the UK, for example, has excluded incentives for refining waste lipids into green jet fuel, while Germany is focusing exclusively on e-fuels.

Asked about the growing number of electric vehicles reducing the quantity of waste-based fuels needed for the road sector, EWABA pointed to the Commission estimates that 80% of vehicles on EU roads will still have an internal combustion engine by 2030.

“It is safe to say that you will have a majority of ICEs on EU roads until the middle of the next decade and you’ll still have ICEs from the older fleet after 2035,” which is the Commission’s proposed date to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars. “When it comes to the heavy-duty vehicle sector that is harder to electrify, this may be achieved even later,” Kanonis said.

“Depriving EU diesel vehicles of their best decarbonising agent is not sound in terms of policy making, especially when its contribution to decarbonise aviation is estimated to be very limited due to non-scalability,” he added.

Despite the concerns put forward by ICCT and the waste biofuels industry, the European Commission is adamant the legislation will result in greener flying.

Speaking at a EURACTIV-hosted event in September, Filip Cornelis, aviation director with the Commission’s transport department, said the proposed legislation will “significantly reduce emissions” in a sector that has proven particularly difficult to decarbonise.

EU Commission, industry clash over green jet fuel mandate

The European Commission has strongly denied accusations that its proposed mandate to support sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions by diverting waste-based biofuels from the road sector.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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