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Ensuring that aviation biofuels are sustainable in the long haul

South African Airways’ has made its maiden biofuel flight makes use of feedstock certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials.

Aviation is a fast-growing industry, with more than 3 billion passengers taking flight in 2014. It is also responsible for a large quantity of greenhouse gas emissions, with roughly the same footprint as Canada, one of the top 10 emitting countries in the world. Over the next 30 years, the industry is set to more than double in size, and must therefore work firmly towards reducing its footprint if we are to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.
Some emissions can be reduced by improved routing efficiency and better engines or planes, but unfortunately the energy requirements of flight mean that aeroplanes will be reliant on hydrocarbon fuels for a long time to come.
Consequently, biofuels are a key component of this transition. These are fuels manufactured from oils, sugars and biomass from plants, rather than from fossil fuels. Because plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere biofuels typically can reduce the emissions from flights by between 25% and 75%. A recent study by the Stockholm Environmental Institute estimates that biofuels could feasibly reduce aviation’s emissions by as much as 9% between 2020 and 2035, while still being produced in a responsible manner.
However, the biofuel industry is very small at present, and its growth may well compete with other land use options that are essential for our future wellbeing.
It is against this backdrop that WWF South Africa (WWF-SA) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) are undertaking a study to evaluate the potential for sustainable biofuels within sub-Saharan Africa. This means factoring in the population growth and agricultural demand within the region (since the displacement of food crops has been a key concern of first-generation biofuels), the protection of endangered species and critical ecosystems, and the securing of essential water resources as the climate changes.
The outcome of this study should be an indication of both the quantity of biofuel that can be produced, and the most responsible crops and locations to drive it while ensuring long-term sustainability. This project is funded by the Boeing Company, which naturally has an interest in ensuring the sustainability of the aviation industry.
There are a number of existing standards that evaluate and certify the sustainability credentials of biofuel processes. WWF’s long engagement with the RSB has resulted in a standard that rigorously assesses not just the food, water and environmental impacts of biofuel feedstock production, but also the social and employment impacts. In other words, sustainable biofuels should be not only economically viable, but should lead to improved environmental and human wellbeing within the areas they are grown. RSB is currently looking to certify the whole chain of custody, ensuring sustainability certification for the final biofuel product.
This is why we are delighted to note that South African Airways’ maiden biofuel flight makes use of feedstock certified by the RSB. SAA’s stated ambition – to secure 400 million litres of sustainable biofuels by 2023 – is an unprecedented step towards reducing its footprint, and will require a significant growth in the local and regional biofuels industry.
Through the WWF-SA sustainability study and a further RSB piloting phase in suitable areas, the project is working to ensure that this goal can be achieved without adverse impacts, by focussing only on best-in-class biofuels that enhance rural development and smallholder livelihoods, while protecting biodiversity and critical agricultural resources for our growing population and economy.

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