What is “Sustainable Aviation Fuel”, or SAF?

The worldwide push to decarbonise the economy now has sweeping support from governments, international organisations and leading financiers. The effects this will have on aviation are not yet clear.

The current frequency of flights to and from Australia may be the “low-hanging fruit” in airlines’ push to reduce their carbon emissions. At least that was the argument made in a submission to a parliamentary enquiry by the Australian Airports Association.

Airbus claims it will be flying hydrogen-fueled jets in 2035. But the race is on to perfect an interim solution known as sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.

BP currently makes SAF combining jet fuel with waste animal fats and plant-derived oils from agriculture. It claims its SAF will reduce carbon-equivalent emissions by 80%.

Boeing and NASA have been testing the claims of SAF producers in flights off the coast of Portland this week.

The EU also passed new regulations on SAF this week. The regulations mandate a 2% share of airline fuel be SAF from 2025, with increases projected to reach 70% in 2050.

Even Qantas is getting on board. The airline is developing a plant to reuse waste products from Queensland sugar cane in its SAF blend. It claims 10% of its fuel mix will be SAF by 2030.

These are of course welcome initiatives. Aviation is an energy-intensive industry responsible for 3.5% of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions.

Yet it seems questionable whether agricultural waste products can make a meaningful dent in demand. Worldwide aviation uses some 300 billion litres of fuel per year, raising the threat of increasing global food prices to maintain business and tourist jet-setting.

The cleanest solution is clearly reducing the total amount of air travel. And in Australia, at least, that could be a bitter pill to swallow.

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