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Due to the volume of hydrocarbon fuel used, aviation is responsible for a large quantity of greenhouse gas emissions. To avoid dangerous levels of climate change, the aviation sector – like all other sectors – must start decarbonising by further improving their operational efficiency and increasing the use of sustainable aviation fuels and carbon offsets.

What is the issue?

With an estimated four billion passengers taking flight in 2017 alone, air travel is expected to double in the next 30 years. This global industry’s volume of emissions is equal to Canada’s carbon footprint which is one of the top ten emitting counties in the world.

While some emissions can be reduced by improving operational and technical efficiency, unfortunately the immense energy requirements of flight mean that aeroplanes will be reliant on energy-dense liquid fuels for a long time to come.

Currently, this need is met with climate-change causing hydrocarbon fuels. We need to find an alternative. Consequently, biomass-based fuels and other alternative fuels are a key component of the transition to a lower carbon future.

However, the alternative fuels are not without risks. Crop-based alternative fuels may compete with other land uses, with the displacement of food crops a main concern. Therefore biofuels must be produced sustainably with minimal harm to people and plant if it is to be a viable alternative.

What are we doing?

Through research, WWF has established the potential of sustainable biofuels within sub-Saharan Africa. On the back of this, we have embarked on a project to develop a local value chain for sustainable certified biofuel in South Africa.

How do we do this?

Firstly, the outcome of a two-year initial research study indicated that the quantity of biofuel that can be produced, as well as the most sustainable crop choices and responsibly-selected growing locations. This was done using a number of existing criteria from the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials standard that set appropriate constraints for the biofuel production processes to ensure all sustainability risks are addressed.

The study also factored in population growth and agricultural demand within the region, while prioritising the protection of endangered species, critical ecosystems and essential water sources.

We are focussing on best-in-class biofuels that offer the opportunity for rural development for our growing population and economy, such as the Project Solaris. To prove the viability of this approach, we are undertaking a three-year pilot project from 2017 onwards.

Who do we work with?

Boeing Company funded the feasibility research study. WWF is working with The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) and International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis on the feasibility study. We are partnering with Fetola Foundation, RSB and SkyNRG

How did it start?

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.

What are the big wins?
  1. We now have a clear picture of what the potential is for sustainable biofuel in sub-Saharan Africa, and where the best production areas are. This can inform policy planning and commercial operations alike for greener aviation.
  2. Raising the profile of the RSB as the preferred sustainability partner in the region ensures that biofuels are produced sustainably according to an internationally accepted and rigorous standard.