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Sustainable Aviation fuel
© Ivan Shimko Unsplash

Aviation has a very high impact on the planet, accounting for over two percent of global CO2 emissions. As this industry continues to grow, we must find ways to reduce its impacts through new technology, operational efficiency, sustainable aviation fuels and carbon offsets.

What is the issue?

Aviation has by far the greatest impact per kilometre travelled of all transport options. With the sector projected to continue its fast growth, how do we reduce emissions from air travel? While some emissions can be reduced by improving operational and technical efficiency, the immense energy requirements of flying mean that airplanes will be reliant on energy-dense liquid fuels for a long time to come.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are low-carbon fuel alternatives for the industry. These non-petroleum-based fuels are generally produced from bio-based feedstocks such as energy crops, waste, residues, and end-of life products (in which case they may be synonymous with aviation biofuels or bio-jet-fuels), or fossil waste such as industrial off-gases like carbon monoxide.

Biomass-based fuels and other alternative fuels are a key component of the transition to a lower carbon future, but they are not without risks. Crop-based alternative fuels will compete with other land uses, with the displacement of food crops a primary concern. We must find ways to produce bio-based fuels sustainably with minimal harm to people and planet if it is to be a viable alternative

What are we doing?

WWF has undertaken comprehensive research on the potential of producing SAF within sub-Saharan Africa. Based on this work, WWF continues to engage policy makers and industry leaders to lay out a roadmap for SAF production in South Africa, ensuring that this growing market has firm sustainability principles embedded from the outset.

How do we do this?

To establish the potential for SAF production, we embarked on a two-year research study that estimated the quantity of SAF that can be produced in sub-Saharan Africa, subject to the strictest sustainability criteria. Population growth and food demand within the region have been factored in, as has the need to protect critical ecosystems, areas of high biodiversity value and essential water sources.  

With energy crops able to provide only a limited amount of SAF in South Africa, we have also evaluated the potential of producing SAF from biomass waste such as cleared invasive alien plants and industrial off-gas as feedstocks. Our work lays the foundation from which a roadmap for SAF production in South Africa could be developed. This could in turn lead to continuous production of waste-based SAF in South Africa, making the country the first SAF producer in Africa, and one of only a handful of states producing alternative fuels globally.

Who do we work with?

In all our work on SAF, we work closely with the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). The research into SAF potential, was carried out on behalf of WWF by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The pre-feasibility of a waste biomass-based bio-jet value chain was funded by the European Union through its Switch Africa Green programme (the Waste to Wing project) where we partnered with the Fetola Foundation and SkyNRG.

The assessment of potential SAF supply chains in South Africa was led by Stellenbosch University, with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, South African Environmental Observation Network and Imperial Logistics playing key roles.

We have also partnered with the Western Cape Government on work funded by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation for a pre-feasibility study of biomass waste utilisation for production of SAF by PetroSA.

How did it start?

As research has revealed the significant contribution that aviation makes towards global CO2 emissions, momentum is building in the sector to address aircraft emissions and biomass-based fuels are once again in the spotlight. Aviation could more than double the demand for biofuels in the next 10 years, with even larger increases possible in the longer-term. This comes with significant sustainability risks.

WWF is working to understand the physical limits of production of sustainable biofuels, how to prioritise the limited biomass resources and ensure that any bio-based fuels that are produced, genuinely reduce emissions, and contribute to socio-economic development and the just transition.

What are the big wins?
  1. Our research into the potential for sustainable biofuels provides a clear picture of the most promising energy crops and their geographic distribution across sub-Saharan Africa. This has the potential to shape policies and direct investments to deliver environmental and developmental gains without risking food security or environmental integrity.

  2. We have contributed to raising the profile of the RSB as the preferred sustainability partner in the region, helping to ensure that biofuels are produced sustainably according to an internationally accepted and rigorous standard.

  3. A comprehensive research study headed by WWF found that South Africa has the immediate technical potential to produce 3,2 to 4.5 billion litres of SAF annually, following the strictest sustainability requirements. This is enough to replace the use of conventional jet-fuel domestically up to a maximum blending threshold of 1,2 billion litres per annum, while also providing 2 to 3,3 billion litres for export.