Can you trust SAF?

This article first appeared in the 2023 Victor Magazine. Click here for complimentary access.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is the perfect example of innovation that simply can’t be explained in an attention-grabbing headline. There certainly isn’t any shortage of scientific literature or practical case studies that prove the credibility of SAF, but when you consider that it has been around since 2008 – that’s almost 15 years now – the unfortunate reality is that the vast majority of flyers have little to no idea of what it actually is.

SAF represents the aviation industry’s cutting-edge fuel innovation, harnessed from entirely renewable waste and residue sources such as used cooking oil. When compared to traditional fossil jet fuel, SAF boasts a remarkable reduction of up to 80% in greenhouse gas emissions over the entire life-cycle of the fuel. Though the benefits of this solution might appear obvious, there still remain some challenges facing the SAF industry as it looks to make a more significant impact on the wider aviation industry.

It might seem frustrating that a readily available innovation like SAF has encountered such challenges with regards to garnering the attention of the average consumer and wider media, especially when compared to the enthusiasm surrounding electric and hydrogen technologies. It is noteworthy, however, that this disparity in public interest appears to be rooted in the ongoing quest for a singular, all-encompassing solution, often referred to as the ‘silver bullet.’ Paradoxically, this relentless pursuit sometimes overshadows the proven and readily available options, such as SAF.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel is the key solution for aviation’s climate issues – not only is it an obvious improvement on fossil fuels but it is pegged to mitigate 65% of aviation’s carbon emissions by 2050. However, there remains a certain degree of apprehension in some corners of the market. Susanne Bouma, Head of Partnerships and Programmes at Neste, the world’s largest producer of SAF, explains why this challenge remains; “Not taking action is the easiest way out in the short term. We recognise that change can be challenging, particularly when it might incur additional costs. However, efforts to question the credibility and accuracy of SAF as a solution to reduce emissions, as well as the absence of well-defined policies and financial allocations for sustainable travel, are merely symptoms of inaction.”

Neste is the first to admit that, as with any solution, SAF isn’t 100% perfect, but that is not to say its adoption should be overlooked in favour of solutions that aren’t even ready to be implemented. Bouma states, “Other technologies like electric or hydrogen-powered flight, as well as more efficient aircraft designs and flight routes, are all part of the equation. The key difference is that SAF is available today and can be used in current aircraft and fuel infrastructure, whereas hydrogen and electric still require years of R&D. The two alternatives here, unfortunately, need serious overall infrastructure and energy transition changes.”

Bouma emphasises that properly communicating the credibility of SAF plays an indispensable role in establishing the trustworthiness of the solution. She highlights the multifaceted nature of Neste’s sustainability approach by highlighting their meticulous calculation of greenhouse gas emissions using well-established life cycle assessment methodologies. These methods ensure comprehensive accounting for emissions throughout the fuel’s entire lifecycle, encompassing production and logistics. 

Another key distinguishing feature of SAF, in contrast to fossil fuels, lies in its raw materials, which are derived from biogenic sources that have absorbed carbon during their lifecycle. When SAF is burned, it effectively recycles carbon that was already present, contributing to its more environmentally responsible profile.

In keeping with the theme of trust, Neste is also very aware of claims suggesting that “there isn’t enough SAF to supply the needed demand”. This notion has become the go-to argument for naysayers of SAF in recent years; however, the reality is that Neste could potentially have an excess SAF production capacity by 2028. Reuters recently wrote in an article that the company is seeking greater clarity on long-term demand to substantiate investments beyond that timeframe.

Neste’s objective is to increase its production of renewable fuels to surpass 6 million tonnes by 2026, up from the current 4.5 million tonnes. Jonathan Wood, the Vice President of Renewable Aviation, shared this information at an aviation sustainability conference in Dublin, emphasising that 33% of this production will be dedicated to SAF.

As well as this, Neste also faces the important challenge of validating and communicating the source of the raw materials they are using to produce SAF. On this topic, Neste asserts it has developed a robust system to ensure its renewable products, and the raw materials it used in their production, always meet the legal sustainability requirements set by local authorities in its markets.

Most commercial airlines still talk often and loudly about the benefits of carbon offsetting despite growing scepticism. Carbon offsetting has its merits when done effectively; however, one could argue that the far more constructive stance to take would be to stop carbon emissions from getting into the atmosphere in the first place and to help make sure that fossil fuels stay underground.

Offsetting and Sustainable Aviation Fuel represent distinct approaches to addressing the environmental impact of air travel. When one purchases offsets, it effectively serves as compensation for emissions elsewhere, but it does not mitigate the direct impact of one’s own emissions. In essence, offsetting allows for the continuation of emitting the same level of emissions as before – this is what has led to most serious climate campaigners losing faith in carbon offset schemes.

Victor’s decision to discontinue its 200% carbon offsetting initiative in favour of wholeheartedly championing SAF exemplifies the profound distinction between these two solutions. Victor’s ‘Pay Here, Use There’ model enables customers to voluntarily purchase Neste’s Sustainable Aviation Fuel every time they charter an aircraft, irrespective of aircraft or airport. When the customer chooses how much SAF it would like to buy, Victor notifies Neste, who then delivers the SAF from its refinery to Helsinki airport where it is then used on a commercial flight by one of its partner airlines.

Results after 1 year in partnership with Neste

After the commercial airline has burnt the fuel, the certification process can take place. The Victor customer who purchased the SAF will get a receipt or certificate itemising exactly how much SAF it bought, details of the flight that burnt the fuel, and details of the greenhouse gas emission reduction achieved. This certificate can be used for the customers’ emission reporting, even against any science-based targets they need to meet.”

Toby Edwards, co-CEO of Victor explains, “Our ‘Pay Here, Use There’ blueprint is different from offsetting because the emission reduction is in-sector, meaning it is staying in aviation. Furthermore, the emission reduction is ‘immediate’, and there is a clear chain of custody. One in five of our customers are voluntarily buying SAF, and, on average, they are spending around £959 on SAF per booking. This is not only a clear indication of the growing demand for more sustainable air travel, but also proof that our customers trust our innovative blueprint.”

Nicolas Guillaume, Partnership Manager at Neste adds, “If all airlines/operators use this model we can demonstrate a significant demand pool, and this will help to accelerate the production of SAF. To reach net-zero 2050 we need ~18 million tonnes of SAF in 2030 according to IATA. If everyone would follow the Victor blueprint and be able to replicate the results that it is achieving today, we would already be in line with what we need to reach net zero in 2050.”

The critical question of sustainability necessitates that those who benefit most from air travel bear the responsibility to make more sustainable decisions. Neste’s vision, alongside innovative solutions like SAF and Victor’s pioneering approach, points us in the right direction. By embracing these forward looking initiatives, we inch closer to a future where sustainability is no longer an aspiration but an integral part of air travel.

Ultimately, for SAF to realise its full potential, it must break out of the echo chamber and inspire the commercial industry to change their habits. In order to do this the aviation industry as a whole needs to step up to the mark and ask not what the SAF market can do for them, but rather what they can do for the SAF market. 

Victor has already paved the way for the business aviation sector, acting as a test bed for the wider commercial air travel  sector. By following suit, the industry opens the door to innovation, collaboration, and, ultimately, a more sustainable and environmentally responsible future for air travel. The realisation of SAF’s full potential hinges on building trust between stakeholders as well as the industry’s dedication to becoming a catalyst for change.

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