4 December 2023

Sustainable aviation cannot take off without eco-pragmatism


In the global search for greener pastures, regulators worldwide are grappling with the challenge of making aviation fuels more sustainable. The European Union has taken a leading role and introduced legislation known as ReFuelEU, which mandates a gradual increase in the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs). The journey towards sustainable aviation faces obstacles, notably the current cost of SAFs, which remains more than twice the amount of traditional kerosene. However, price is not the only barrier to making our airplanes greener.

In a recent development, the Department for Transport has committed to introducing a revenue certainty mechanism to support SAF production and boost its uptake. This initiative aims to provide producers with greater assurance about earnings from the SAF they produce. The UK’s SAF program, already one of the most comprehensive globally, is set to benefit from this scheme, coupled with the introduction of a SAF mandate in 2025.

A global approach which avoids protectionism is vital to the SAF revolution. The promotion of SAFs should extend beyond borders and encourage collaboration among nations, regulators, and other stakeholders. While the EU advocates for stringent standards, it must overcome historical reservations and embrace technology neutrality.

A significant dimension of this challenge is the role of palm oil-derived SAFs, particularly in Southeast Asia. The EU has traditionally taken a protectionist stance on biofuels from this region, and has banned the use of palm oil in the production of SAFs, a move which has been met with protests from Malaysia and Indonesia. Although well-intentioned, they must reconsider this position. Derivatives like Palm Oil Mill Effluent and Palm Oil Fatty Acid Distillate offer a viable feedstock for SAFs, and Southeast Asian and West African exporters can potentially reduce aviation emissions by supplying these waste products consistently.

A paradox arises when you consider that the same voices calling for the abolition of fossil fuels have historically opposed the use of palm oil. The EU’s approach to palm oil then appears contradictory and emphases the need for a more nuanced and coherent strategy. For SAFs to thrive, policymakers must reconcile environmental objectives with the potential of innovative feedstocks.

Drawing parallels with Germany’s energy policy, which inadvertently increased coal usage and electricity prices in its fervor to decarbonise and denuclearise, the EU must exercise caution. Striking the right balance is crucial to ensure that sustainability goals do not unintentionally 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 exemplify diverse strategies. However, the harmonisation of standards will prove essential for the widespread acceptance of SAFs.

The regulatory frameworks in the EU and the UK underline the issue’s complexity. The criteria for defining SAFs are also central to the debate, with differing standards and certifications complicating the global push for sustainability.

Fundamentally, the journey towards affordable and sustainable aviation fuels demands a collaborative and global effort. The EU must relinquish any protectionist views on palm oil-derived SAFs and adopt a more balanced approach. As the aviation industry flies toward a greener future, policymakers, regulators, and activists must shed old mantras and prioritize pragmatic solutions over ideological debates. Smart and pragmatic approaches are imperative to making sustainable jet fuels a viable mass-market alternative.

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Frederik Roeder is Managing Director of the Consumer Choice Center.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.