Road to sustainability
Through boosting infrastructural requirements and bridging cost differential, the government can normalise the use of SAFs for combating climate change
If you take a flight in 2025, there are fair chances that the airplane you fly will have some sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) blended with the normal aviation turbine fuel in its tank. However, there is still quite a long way to go for SAF which has the potential to substantially cut carbon emissions by 70 to 100 per cent. It is being produced in different countries using different natural items, waste products or their combinations, and is estimated to have powered some 4,50,000 flights worldwide so far, many of them for experimental purposes. While airports and aviation operations are being digitised at a rapid pace across the world to slash the aviation sector's carbon footprint, several countries have already started operating flights with SAF blended with jet fuel or are in the advanced stages of doing so. But the task is enormous. It ranges from creating an infrastructure and ramping up production of SAF to its supply from the source to the plane, its pricing and the taxation regime.
While the global airline industry has targeted 2050 to achieve net zero carbon emissions, India is banking on sustainable fuel-powered airlines and increased use of advanced aviation technology and digitisation to prepare for a net zero carbon-future by 2070. Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia recently said the country will have 96 carbon-neutral airports running on renewable energy by 2024. Asking Indian airlines to quickly adopt sustainable fuel for reducing emissions, he said all future airports will be developed on the foundations of carbon zero and environmental sustainability. Some Indian airlines like IndiGo and SpiceJet have already flown experimental flights using SAF.
India's National Policy on Biofuels has underlined the need to support the use of feedstocks that do not conflict with food supply and ensuring that the land use concerns are accounted for to produce SAF. Promoting the sustainable fuel industry would not only reduce airline emissions, but also combat air pollution. It would check crop burning, create numerous green jobs, improve farmers' incomes and help solve waste management issues. Turning waste into fuel is critical to combating climate change. But this process should also avoid unsustainable over-production of palm oil for biofuels or widespread Jatropha plantation even in agro-climatic zones not appropriate for such species of trees. Instead, planting of native oil-bearing trees and locally adapted short-gestation crops can be encouraged to strengthen and diversify supply chains in a sustainable manner. The transition from reliance on fossil fuels will also not be easy, even though the commitment to net-zero transition has grown globally. Airline companies are also making bold commitments to climate action. IndiGo had last December entered into an agreement with CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum (CSIR-IIP) to become partners in leading the deployment of sustainable aviation fuel in India and globally. SpiceJet, in a partnership with Boeing, has also signed an agreement with the CSIR-IIP to source sustainable fuel from them and its production partners in order to decarbonise its respective fleets. In a statement, CSIR-IIP Director Anjan Ray has said: "CSIR-IIP is committed to achieving India's goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and indigenous, globally competitive, sustainable fuel production for a wide range of transportation and industrial uses. We believe that the synergies ... can enhance national self-reliance as well as strengthen India's position in the global aviation sector."
Hence, it is essential for governments and policymakers to harness this momentum and create a roadmap for achieving emission reductions across the supply chain – bringing fuel suppliers, airlines, airports and distributors along. First, an infrastructure must be created to produce fuel from raw materials, garbage, used cooking oil or agriculture residues. Secondly, a supply chain must be put in place to purchase residue from farmlands and household waste to provide fodder to various facilities to produce alternate fuel. This will benefit the management of household waste and promote recycling, as well as generate thousands of jobs and enhance grassroots-level prosperity. Research estimates that a ten per cent blend of SAF on all domestic flights would require almost 3,60,000 tonnes of SAF. That will accelerate significant macro-economic opportunities throughout the value chain and unlock market forces, not to speak of the financial benefits. It will also achieve cleaner skies and lessen open-air crop burning that leads to heavy pollution every winter in north India.
India is well-positioned to have a significant impact in the area of SAF production as it generates abundant amounts of agricultural residues (farming byproducts like husks and chaff), used cooking oil and other solid waste and feedstocks which can be used to produce SAFs. The existing delivery systems can be used to close operational gaps. Since SAFs are almost identical to jet fuels, their deployment will require minimal additional delivery infrastructure. Oil producers can work with oil marketing companies to blend SAFs with jet fuels properly. Blending facilities and storage tanks would have to be constructed along the delivery routes, as the current regulations prohibit blending on airport grounds.
However, pricing of SAFs and their large-scale deployment will pose a major challenge for the airlines. As SAFs are still an emerging fuel source, they are between 200 and 500 per cent more expensive than the traditional jet fuels. While costs would fall as the production technologies evolve, bridging the cost differential right now would require government support and substantial investment from the private sector. For this purpose, the government should provide funds to close the cost gap with measures such as tax breaks on aviation fuel, lower taxes on SAFs and subsidies on SAF-production investments.
Global aviation body International Air Transport Association (IATA) has urged governments across the world to urgently put in place large-scale incentives to rapidly expand the use of SAF, as the aviation sector pursues its commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. "Governments don't need to invent a playbook. Incentives to transition electricity production to renewable sources like solar or wind worked. As a result, clean energy solutions are now cheap and widely available. With similar incentives for SAF, we could see 30 billion litres available by 2030. Though still far from where we need to be, it would be a clear tipping point towards our net-zero ambition of ample SAF quantities at affordable prices," IATA's Director General Willie Walsh said recently.
Views expressed are personal
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