Environmental Defense Fund: Variability in Sustainable Aviation Fuels’ Environmental Impact

Each week brings new headlines on the progress being made by the aviation industry in adopting sustainable aviation fuels.

This is good news in many ways at a moment when climate change impacts are getting more serious. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, aviation accounts for 3.5 percent (or a total of 3.6 billion gallons) of the human-induced climate change. Aviation would be among the top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases in the world if it were a nation.

Adoption of sustainable aviation fuels is crucial for this reason alone. There is one thing that you must understand about these new fuels: not all sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are the same.

Pedro Piris Cabezas, senior economist and director of sustainable international transportation at EDF, said that some do more harm than benefit.

Piris-Cabezas begins, “We want reduce greenhouse gas emission but we don’t want it to harm ecosystems or people.”

TravelPulse sat with Piris-Cabezas recently for a detailed conversation about the current reality of the sustainable aviation industry, its flaws and reasons for optimism.

What is sustainable aviation fuel?
It’s easy for people to get lost when discussing sustainable aviation fuel, the processes involved in producing it, and the materials that are used to make such fuels. This is a complicated topic that is not easy for consumers to understand.

In a recent EDF blog, Piris Cabezas explained that SAF, at its most basic, is a fuel which can be made from alternative sources, and then mixed with jet fuel for planes.

The fuels can be made using biofuels, such as cooking oil and agricultural wastes or synthetic e-fuels from excess renewable electricity or water.

It’s important to realize that only aviation fuels with “high integrity”, as Piris-Cabezas describes it, can contribute to a sustainable future.

What does high integrity actually mean? Piris-Cabezas explains that high-integrity SAF reduces emissions in a way that is comparable to fossil jet fuel, and adheres to strict environmental and social safeguards. The international standards organisation ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), has also certified that this fuel is safe for aircraft use.

SAF with high integrity or benefits comes from specific sources. Fuels that are biogenic or hybrid fuels containing both fossil and biogenic fractions such as municipal waste can be used. It could also come from green liquid hydrogen or recycled-carbon-based bio-processed fuels.

The use of sustainable aviation engines can reduce the impact of flying on the environment dramatically if all these standards are met.

Unfortunately, SAF is not always produced with integrity and transparency. Piris-Cabezas says that the production of aviation fuel, for instance, has unintended and devastating consequences on ecosystems.

Palm oil is used to make sustainable aviation fuel. Palm oil plantations have a reputation for destroying vast areas of rainforest to plant palm trees, which are needed to produce oil.

Piris-Cabezas explains that “demand for these types of fuels leads to deforestation in the rainforest, which has wider sustainability implications including ecosystem destruction and impacts upon forest-dependent communities.”

Demand for palm oil fuels may also increase the market price for this commodity. This can have a negative effect on local communities that rely on it for their everyday needs.

Other so-called sustainable aviation materials may also be made from landfill waste, including plastic waste. When that fuel is used in planes or produced, it can emit harmful elements.

The environmental claims made about these types of fuels could be false.

Here are a few less-than-desirable forms of SAF. Piris-Cabezas explains why it is important for the industry to move forward with the right safeguards.

Airlines Face a Challenge

There are some positive steps being taken in the development of sustainable aviation fuel, but there are also many challenges.

At this stage, it’s difficult for policymakers and airlines to determine which aviation fuels are produced using high-integrity methods and which are damaging the environment because of the way they are produced.

EDF has published the High-Integrity Sustainable Fuel Product Handbook. This work is the culmination and result of eight years of analysis and research conducted by Piris Cabezas.

The handbook is a way to create a framework that defines sustainable aviation fuel production and level the playing field for the entire industry. This type of framework, as explained in the handbook, is needed to “avoid unintended effects on ecosystems and livelihoods.”

This book can be used as a tool to help fuel producers and airlines, policymakers and investors, companies and investors understand and identify SAFs with high integrity, develop effective policies to support SAFs with high integrity, invest in SAFs that have high integration, and make the transition to SAFs of high integrity.

Piris-Cabezas says, “I wrote this guidebook to make stakeholders more aware.” There are several ways to produce sustainable aviation gasoline. We need a method to determine what is sustainable. Next week, I’ll be on the road to discuss the complexity of the methodologies that determine what is sustainable.

Piris-Cabezas, who has dedicated many years to creating the handbook and is now focusing on spreading its message and research, is passionate about his mission. As the introduction of his book makes clear, he approaches it with a mix of urgency, realism and optimism.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned recently that our window of opportunity to prevent irreversible climate damages is rapidly closing. There is still reason to hope, and there is time left to act.

Piris-Cabezas, the EDF and others are working together to ensure that the actions taken now in the sustainable aviation industry are transparent and thoughtful actions that will bring about the needed changes.

Even as the publication of important documents like this handbook is nearing completion, setbacks continue to occur. The Republican-led U.S. Congress, for example, has actively worked to undermine the Inflation Reduction Act. This important environmental measure includes components that are specifically designed to support the development of sustainable aircraft fuels.

Piris-Cabezas says, “Now, we are seeing attempts in the U.S. Congress to basically deconstruct the sustainability framework which was part of the Inflation Reduction Act originally for sustainable aviation fuels.” This could lead to fuels being made in the U.S. that are contaminated.

The fuel industry is also inertia to make the right decisions. There are some players who can have a negative impact on the system.

At a time when climate change is a major issue, these types of obstacles and setbacks can have grave consequences. Piris-Cabazas does his best to make sure that progress is made in a positive way.

Two approaches are taken by him to achieve this. First, he tries to convince global stakeholders like airlines, fuel producers and governments to improve transparency and adopt production regulations. EDF isn’t the only organization trying to convince governments that industry regulations are necessary. International Air Transport Association, (IATA), also issued a recent statement urging governments to adopt policies that encourage and support the increased production of sustainable aviation fuels.

Consumers: What is their role?

Piras Cabezas’ mission is to raise consumer awareness around the world that sustainable aviation fuels may not be what they claim to be.

Piris-Cabezas says, “We must make sure that end users are aware of this issue and understand that not everything in the world is equal and all claims do not have the same validity.” “Consumers must also understand that as customers, they are in a position of great power. They can ask service providers to adopt transparency as the North Star of this industry.

Other words, consumers should and can play a part in keeping progress moving forward when it comes to developing high integrity sustainable aviation oil. The subset of travelers committed to the development of sustainable travel could become a powerful force for change if they united and demanded transparency and accountability.

Piris-Cabezas concludes, “We must make sure that this time, we do it right and we don’t lose the opportunity to put the aviation industry on the right path for decarbonization.” Sustainable aviation fuels may not be the silver bullet to reduce the impact of aviation, but they’re the best technology we have for reducing emissions and decarbonizing the industry.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *