Around the world, travelers are choosing more eco-friendly ways to get around. According to a recent Business Insider study, about 40% of travelers claim that they would prefer to take shorter but longer trips if it helps reduce their environmental impact.
Another 40% said they would be happy to stay in a “low-choice but green hotel”, and 1 in 3 would be interested in using public transport. This is especially true for the younger generation, with 93% of General Z-Ars and 89% of Millennials saying they are willing to change their travel habits in the interests of the environment.
The travel industry itself is moving towards creating more sustainable travel. And while many new technologies and trends are emerging to help achieve this goal, none are as promising as sustainable fuels for air travel. Also known as “Sustainable Aviation Fuel” or “SAF”, it represents one of the greatest advances in the aviation industry. Let’s take a look at what it is and why it can make such a significant difference.
The background is a little bit
We all know that climate change is a problem – especially ethno-climate change. Anthropological climate change theory holds that humans are causing the most significant changes in our climate by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas. Its effects are discussed in detail. If we reach 1.5 degrees of warming above the pre-industrial level, our earth will be shaken by extreme events that will endanger the life of the earth.
Overall travel accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, of which transportation accounts for about 50%. As it stands, the aviation sector is largely dependent on petroleum-based conventional jet fuel. Aviation fuel is naturally carbon-intensive because it is based on hydrocarbons. This is why airlines around the world are promising to be carbon neutral and reach their net-zero goal by 2050.
IATA, for example, is committed to net-zero by 2050 and outlines a number of steps it plans to take to achieve this goal. British Airways, American Airlines, Delta, Jet Blue, Lufthansa and many other commercial airlines have also made their own commitments.
If the air travel industry wants to reach this goal, it will have to move away from the use of traditional jet fuel. But how can they do that? Now there are really only 3 options:
- Using hydrogen. The problem with this is that the technology for it does not currently exist – it does not work with conventional jet engines. This means that it will take time and research to develop jet engines to be more compatible with hydrogen.
- Going electric. This method faces the same problems as hydrogen – we have not yet been able to support electric planes in the development of technology. Although it will not be available in the future.
- SAF. The great thing about it is that these engines require minimal development, it is already being used to get planes. Research, technology and development are now for us to use – which means we will soon be able to reach 100% SAF-powered planes. This will lead to an 80% faster emission reduction than conventional jet fuel.
So, what exactly is SAF?
Sustainable aviation fuel is a jet fuel that uses biological feedstock to make oil. Why is that a good thing? If you remember what we learned in the biology class at school, you will know that oil comes from millions of years of organic matter through heat and pressure. This is clearly not an ideal or sustainable long-term solution.
But SAF is different. Sustainable feedstock is any biological material that can be used directly as fuel, and in the case of SAF, it can be cooking oil, vegetable oil, municipal solid waste, waste gas and agricultural residues. What’s great about this is that you can grow the plants needed to produce SAF, which when released will release carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It then builds an organic “carbon lifecycle” to generate fuel, which burns, which eats away at the plants!
How far are we along the road?
Airlines around the world have pledged to make full use of SAF to fuel 100% of flights by 2050. But in the short term, they will actually be able to reach 20% SAF usage by 2030 Because it’s actually quite complex The primary problem in production and at the moment is that it consumes more than fossil jet fuel.
We are currently in a situation where the supply of SAF needs to be greatly increased to be an effective solution. In 2019, for example, global fuel consumption reached an all-time high of 95 billion gallons. Meanwhile, annual SAF production was around 60 million gallons in 2020, which could rise to 72 million gallons as new SAF producers enter the market. While it’s a great thing that it’s growing, it’s still not enough to meet global demand and shift to our fully SAF-based travel.
However, that level of demand continues to drive innovation and ultimately reduce prices – we see a kind of cyclical concept where we need SAF but to make it affordable, it requires both investment and demand.
There are two possible ways for SAF to really get off the ground and become an effective renewable fuel in aviation:
- With a top-down approach – Where the government mandates airlines to use a certain amount of SAF to reduce CO2e emissions over a period of time.
- With a bottom-up approach – Where users and other stakeholders want to know about the environmental and commercial benefits of SAF that it should be used for commercial flights (and later, cargo and transportation). Institutions such as the Brahmal Basudevan Institute for Sustainable Aviation at Imperial College London are already gaining some traction with a 25 million humanitarian grant to continue developing clean, safe and sustainable air travel.
And it is not uncommon to spend on something good for the environment because of interest and demand. Renewable energy was extremely expensive and now the cost of solar power has been reduced by 16%, wind from 9% to 13%. Even large-scale solar power has been reduced by about 85%. It just shows that once people focus on innovation, anything is possible!
A window into the future
Of course, there is no way to know exactly how and when we will be able to use alternative fuels or biofuels. What we do know is that this is a necessary step towards achieving true stability in the travel sector.
I was at a recent summit where I met the CEO of Wright Electric – a US government-backed company trying to build an electric engine for planes. He believes they will have electric aircraft in the next few years. It will be an absolute game-changer in reducing the carbon footprint of the travel sector and reaching our net-zero emissions target.
My only two cents in this regard are that I believe that SAF, and to a certain extent, electric planes are not just the future – they are the near future. SAF is a low-carbon fuel that reduces carbon emissions by 80% compared to the wind fuel we currently use. I think this is a first step towards achieving sustainable travel because it requires no further research and development. The technology and manufacturing facilities for using SAF on commercial flights already exist – and as I mentioned above, many airlines are already using it to a certain extent. In a short time and with increasing demand from users, it will become the norm.
That being said, in my opinion the next step in SAF would be to use electric planes rather than hydrogen-powered planes. Overall transportation is shifting towards electric power, vehicles are moving from petrol to electricity and trains are following the same path. It is reasonable to assume that air travel will look the same.
I don’t think we’re still ready for hydrogen in this area. Between the difficulty of creating resources in the first place and the negative money associated with the Hindenburg Airship, I think we have a long way to go before it can become a viable option.
What can travelers and travel managers do to reduce their carbon footprint during this time?
There are many things you can do to make business or leisure travel more sustainable until SAF becomes more readily available. For example, you can:
What about carbon offsetting?
Yes, travelers and travel managers (or really, anyone booking or arranging any kind of trip) can consider carbon offsetting as a step in the right direction. It’s not the perfect solution, but it’s best for us until SAF and other sustainable travel technologies become more readily available.
It is true that not all environmentalists fully believe in carbon offsetting – for a variety of reasons – from error to distortion. However, theoretically, carbon offsetting works because it allows anyone to be part of a global investigation into tackling greenhouse gas emissions. The idea is that any organization or individual can contribute to offsetting schemes and help reduce carbon emissions regardless of their location or situation. This is something that has been approved with IATA’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) scheme and we also offer it to our customers at Travelpark.
With GreenPerk, TravelPerk customers can offset 100% of their business travel-related carbon footprint. At just 9 0.9% of the total cost of any trip, we invest in VERRA-certified carbon offsetting projects on behalf of our clients that focus on afforestation, biogas capture, and renewable energy to name a few. We’ve also created the GreenPerk API, an open API for companies to understand where and how they’re emitting carbon when they travel for business. They can then use this data to help them reach their net-zero goal.