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Aviation’s alternative fuel transition requires cross-sectoral government policy

24 June 2023
Photo credit: Jose Lebron on Unsplash

Aviation is ramping up efforts to use sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) but is calling for a greater diversification of fuel sources and more decisive government policy and incentives to achieve its decarbonisation goals, and to meet forthcoming UK and EU  mandates. 

Aviation’s calls to governments echo that from maritime, with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in early June  asking governments to provide policy leadership  and funding to support the scale up of technologies needed to meet the quantities of SAF required for decarbonisation. 

IATA expects  overall renewable fuel production to reach an estimated capacity of at least 69 billion litres (55 million tonnes) by 2028. SAF comprises a portion of this growing output, which is being achieved by building new renewable fuel refineries and expanding existing facilities. The expected production has a wide geographic footprint covering North America, Europe and Asia Pacific, which is important for capacity, resilience and logistics.  

“The expected production increase is extremely encouraging. Seeing this, we need governments to act to ensure that SAF gets its fair production share. That means, in the first instance, production incentives, to support aviation’s energy transition. And we need continued approval for more diversification of methods and feedstocks available for SAF production,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.  

In April, Sustainable Aviation – a UK aviation industry coalition – published an updated Net Zero Carbon Road-Map. The publication asserts that the UK could take the lead in developing sustainable aviation technologies like SAF, but warns that the opportunity is at risk without targeted government support. Commenting on the road-map, Shai Weiss, CEO, Virgin Atlantic, said: “A UK SAF industry supports our energy security and creates economic growth through an innovative new green industry. With the right level of government support and partnership across industry we can make this vision a reality”.

However, conscious of global competition for limited fuel stocks, some airlines, for example Qatar Airways, are entering into contracts with providers to protect their supply. Commenting on a deal signed with Shell on 31 May, the Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive, His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, stressed the need “for a more robust SAF supply chain across our global network.” He explained that, “SAF is still three to five times more expensive than fossil-based jet fuel. This is why it is essential for all stakeholders to play their part in facilitating research and development of SAF facilities, enhancing economies of scale, providing financing and placing supportive policies”.

Aviation’s own challenges and calls to governments echo that of maritime. Commenting on ICS proposals submitted to IMO in May, Simon Bennett, ICS Deputy Secretary General explained that the production of low and zero GHG fuels, at scale, “is going to take real world regulation and meaningful incentives, not just the adoption of a new GHG reduction target.”