This article is part of our special report Decarbonising air travel.
Aviation is the fastest growing transport sector, and it will continue to grow despite the current COVID-19 crisis. Regulatory support is needed to achieve the sector’s emission reduction targets.
Thorsten Lange is the Executive Vice President, Renewable Aviation of Neste.
With a view to the EU’s short- and long-term climate targets, the aviation sector needs solutions for decarbonisation today. The ambition level needs to be high to achieve the EU’s climate neutrality by 2050. Existing solutions, sustainable aviation fuels, can help the sector to get there, if necessary regulatory decisions are made.
The EU needs to make sure that its aviation industry is not left behind by providing requirements that create a credible long-term market with intermediate targets, and attract the needed investments. Additionally, incentives for the development of new technologies are needed.
Sustainable Aviation Fuel – The only viable alternative to fossil liquid fuels for powering commercial aircraft
Neste’s sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) provides a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, achieving up to 80% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to fossil jet fuels, over the lifecycle and in its neat form. In addition, SAF also provides additional climate and public health benefits through substantially reduced particulate emissions. According to recent research, the non-CO2 effects of aviation can have equal or even higher climate impact than carbon emissions.
Neste’s biofuel for aviation – Neste MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel™ (SAF) – is made from 100% renewable waste and residue raw materials. It is a fully compliant drop-in solution for existing jet engines and can be blended with conventional fossil jet fuels up to a maximum level of 50% according to present standards. There are no large-scale alternatives to liquid hydrocarbons, i.e. sustainable aviation fuels, in aviation in the foreseen future.
Airports and airlines agree that SAF is the only available way for the aviation industry to reduce its net carbon emissions, together with more efficient aircraft and operational improvements. It is key to work together to offer the private consumer and corporate passengers a way to actively choose to reduce their carbon footprint and thereby cover the higher cost of SAF. However, regulatory support is required to stimulate both the demand and supply of SAF.
Why do we need a blending mandate?
SAF is still at least 3-5 times more expensive than fossil fuel, depending on the technology pathway used. Therefore, incentives are needed for airlines to be able to take this step. A blending mandate for the EU would support this development and create a credible market to attract investments.
The ramping up of global and European SAF production has already started and can continue rapidly, provided that the necessary regulatory decisions are made. Lead times for new biofuel plants are long. Thus, a mandate (1) needs to be decided as soon as possible, (2) ramp-up trajectory needs to be gradual, and (3) be designed for the long-term to provide the certainty needed to trigger investments and give enough time to accumulate returns.
A SAF blending mandate of a minimum of 10% is needed by 2030 to get the aviation sector along in contributing to the climate neutrality goal. If decided soon enough, this ambition level corresponding to the amount of 5-6 Mton of SAF in 2030 (uptake of the European jet fuel) can realistically be achieved. In addition, new plant oils (e.g. intermediate crops and crops from contaminated and degraded land) could bring more availability.
Wide feedstock pool is key
Sustainable feedstocks are available, but their eligibility in the EU legislation cannot be limited only to a narrow pool of ‘advanced biofuels’ as defined by the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II). All sustainable waste and residue feedstocks under the RED II need to be accepted for SAF; there are e.g. plenty of sustainable waste and residue feedstocks which are not explicitly listed in Annex IX of the RED II. For the uptake of sustainable aviation fuels and the decarbonisation of the sector, the sustainability criteria of the RED II need to be the basis for all SAF specific regulations in Europe.
Experience from on-road is clearly demonstrating that a mandate ensures most efficiently the desired uptake, while being market-based and thus cost-efficient. A stable policy framework over a sufficient time horizon would also provide airlines to pursue an efficient and more climate-friendly fuels policy.
Research and Development support and additional incentives are also needed for the future, but they alone cannot decarbonise the aviation sector soon enough nor trigger the SAF production investments needed. For example, power-to-liquid (PtL), i.e. using renewable electricity to produce liquid hydrocarbons from CO₂ and hydrogen, is a good solution, but meaningful volumes are going to be available earliest towards the end of the decade. We need to both start reducing emissions today, while also investing in new technologies for the future. Doing one but not the other is not enough.