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Sustainable Aviation fuel
© WWF South Africa

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.
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 may compete with other land uses, with the displacement of food crops a primary concern. We must find ways to produce biofuels sustainably with minimal harm to people and planet if it is to be a viable alternative.

What are we doing?

WWF continues to research the potential of sustainable biofuels within sub-Saharan Africa and has embarked on a project to develop South Africa’s first local value chain for certified sustainable biojet fuel produced from biomass waste through the Waste to Wing Project.

How do we do this?

To establish the potential for sustainable biofuel production, we embarked on a two-year research study that estimated the quantity of biofuel 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 sustainable biofuels in South Africa, we are also trying to prove the concept of biomass waste as feedstock for the production of biojet fuel. If successful, our work might lead to continuous production of waste-based biojet fuel in South Africa, making the country the first biojet producer in Africa, and one of only a handful of states producing alternative fuels globally.

The Waste to Wing project aims to prove the feasibility of waste-based sustainable jet bio fuel production and consumption in South Africa with the view to replicating elements of the project in other African countries.

Who do we work with?

Our research efforts have largely been funded by The Boeing Company, who also funded the research into the sustainable biofuel potential, which has been carried out on behalf of WWF by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The pre-feasibility of a waste biomass-based biojet value chain has been funded by the EU through its Switch Africa Green programme (the Waste to Wing project) and we are partnering with Fetola Foundation and SkyNRG.

In all our work on aviation biofuels we are working closely with The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB).

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 ensuring that any biofuels that are produced, genuinely reduce emissions and contribute to socio-economic development.

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

  2. We’ve contributed to raising the profile of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials 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 has detailed the feasibility and benefits of a large-scale sustainable aviation fuel economy for South Africa, potentially creating around 100 000 jobs and improving the country’s trade balance by nearly R170 billion without impacting water, food or biodiversity.