Low Carbon Aviation is Making Flying Eco-Friendly

Karen Batra
Karen Batra
January 16, 2020

In the fight against climate change, attention is turning to proposals for clean-fuels legislation and the transportation sector is making promises to achieve low-carbon goals.

The aviation industry, for example, has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050 compared with 2005 levels, and it has turned to low-carbon biofuels for help.

Earlier this month, JetBlue announced that it will offset carbon dioxide emissions from jet fuel for all domestic JetBlue flights beginning in July 2020, making it the first major U.S. airline to do so. The airline also announced plans to start flying with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in mid-2020 on flights from San Francisco International Airport.

What is SAF?

SAF is a clean substitute for fossil jet fuels. Rather than being refined from petroleum, SAF is produced from sustainable feedstocks such as waste oils from biological origin, agriculture waste or non-fossil carbon dioxide (CO2). SAF is a so-called drop-in fuel, which means that it can be blended with fossil jet fuel and that the blended fuel requires no special infrastructure or equipment changes. The environmental benefits of SAF include reduced CO2 emissions, improved air quality and improved fuel efficiency.

JetBlue says it will use Neste MY Renewable Jet Fuel™, produced 100 percent from waste and residue raw materials. Over its lifecycle, it has up to 80 percent smaller carbon footprint compared to fossil jet fuel.

“The airline industry is one of the few industries that has collectively committed to an international emissions reduction goal,” said Robin Hayes, JetBlue CEO. “Carbon offsetting is a bridge to, not a silver bullet for, a lower carbon future.”

Channeling Climate Initiatives into State-based Policy

Days following the JetBlue announcement, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee visited the Seattle-Tacoma International where he called for adoption of a low carbon fuel standard during the 2020 legislative session. A similar proposal nearly passed the state legislature in the 2019 session.

He was joined by Alaska Airlines – a major employer in Seattle – which announced its support for a statewide Clean Fuel Standard in Washington. The program is expected to create an incentive mechanism for airlines to promote the use of sustainable aviation fuels.

“At Alaska, we’re thinking about what it will take to scale production of sustainable aviation fuels and ensure they are commercially viable,” said Diana Birkett Rakow, vice president of external relations at Alaska Airlines. “Inclusion of a voluntary opt-in as part of a statewide Clean Fuel Standard will increase access to locally produced sustainable aviation fuel and help our industry meet ambitious commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis.”

The Sustainable Aviation Fuels Producers Group together with the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and the Low Carbon Fuels Coalition issued a statement Jan. 10 commending Alaska Airlines’ support.  In November 2019, BIO, along with the Low Carbon Fuels Coalition (LCFC), announced a joint initiative to drive adoption of renewable fuel policies in states.

Corporate Jets Want to Be Sustainable Too

Like commercial airlines, business jet operators have also committed to halving carbon emissions by 2050 compared with 2005. Their hope is that adopting renewable fuel to curb emissions could make business jets more attractive to environmentally conscious buyers and those worried about “flight-shaming” and questions over sustainability from shareholders or green campaign groups.

At the National Business Aviation Association’s (NBAA) annual convention in Las Vegas, sustainability in business aviation was a dominant theme. Putting words into action, show organizes invited all turbine aircraft refueling at the airport to do so with some amount of alternative fuels. By the end of the show, an estimated 150,000 gallons of SAF pumped into aircraft at Henderson Executive Airport.

“Aviation is becoming a greener industry thanks to low carbon fuel policies and commitments by key players in our transportation sector,” says Stephanie Batchelor, vice president of BIO's Industrial and Environmental Section. “If we continue to incentivize innovation in biofuel production, it is possible to travel the world with fuels made from sustainable sources like agricultural residues, industrial waste and even algae.”