Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are a commendable aim for policymakers, however the push for SAFs should transcend borders, fostering collaboration among nations, regulators, and other stakeholders.

In the pursuit of greener skies, regulators worldwide are grappling with the challenge of making aviation fuels more sustainable. The European Union (EU) has taken the lead with its ReFuelEU legislation, mandating a gradual increase in the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs). However, the path to sustainable aviation is not without hurdles, as SAFs currently remain three to four times more expensive than conventional kerosene. Moreover, the potential increase in consumer prices adds another layer of complexity to the already intricate debate.

In November 2023 the EU Council adopted the ‘ReFuelEU aviation’ initiative, a key component of the ‘Fit for 55’ package, aimed at reducing the aviation sector’s carbon footprint. The legislation mandates aviation fuel suppliers to include a minimum share of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) in their products, starting at 2% in 2025 and reaching 70% by 2050. Synthetic fuels are also required, with a progressively increasing share. The law aims to align air transport with EU climate targets, addressing issues of low supply and high prices hindering SAF development. The regulation is set to enter into force on January 1, 2024, with certain provisions applicable from 2025.

A key concern in this discourse is the need for a global approach rather than succumbing to protectionist measures. The push for SAFs should transcend borders, fostering collaboration among nations, regulators, and other stakeholders. As the EU pushes for stringent standards, it must also overcome historical reservations and embrace technology neutrality.

One notable aspect of this challenge is the role of palm oil-derived SAFs, particularly in Southeast Asia. The EU’s protectionist stance on biofuels from this region needs reconsideration. Palm oil derivatives, such as Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME) and Palm Oil Fatty Acid Distillate (PFAD), present a viable circular-economy feedstock for SAFs. South-East Asian and West African exporters have the potential to reduce aviation emissions by providing a consistent supply of these waste products.

However, a paradox emerges when we consider that the same voices advocating for the phase-out of fossil fuels have historically opposed the use of palm oil. The EU’s approach to palm oil as a feedstock for SAFs appears contradictory and highlights the need for a more nuanced and coherent strategy. If SAFs are to succeed, policymakers must reconcile environmental objectives with the potential of innovative feedstocks.

Drawing a parallel with Germany’s energy policy, which, in its zeal to decarbonize and denuclearize, led to unintended consequences like increased coal usage and higher electricity prices, the EU must exercise caution. Striking the right balance is crucial, ensuring that sustainability goals do not inadvertently result in adverse economic and environmental outcomes.

The global landscape further complicates matters, with various countries adopting their own approaches. The UK’s Sustainable Aviation Fuel Mandate and the US Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge Roadmap showcase diverse strategies. Still, harmonization of standards is essential for the widespread acceptance of SAFs.

The regulatory frameworks in the EU, UK, and the US underscore the complexity of the issue. The criteria for what constitutes a SAF are central to the debate, with differing standards and certifications complicating the global push for sustainability.

In conclusion, the journey towards affordable and sustainable aviation fuels demands a collaborative and global effort. The EU must abandon any protectionist views on palm oil-derived SAFs and embrace a more balanced approach. As the aviation industry takes strides toward a greener future, policymakers, regulators, and activists must shed old mantras and prioritize pragmatic solutions over ideological debates. If sustainable jet fuels should ever become an economically viable mass-market alternative, smart and pragmatic approaches are needed.

Originally published here



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