Sustainability Goals More Vital Than Ever Post-COVID, Fuel Industry Says

fuel truck

It may not be one of the most immediately pressing issues raised by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 has raised the profile of aviation’s environmental responsibility. Even as would-be vacationers yearn for a relaxation in travel restrictions, reductions in pollution and aircraft noise are cited worldwide as bright spots amid the gloom.

How aviation responds to these sets of strong but apparently conflicting demands may prove critical to the industry’s future.

“Nothing that’s happening at the moment is changing the need to find lower-carbon ways of developing the aviation industry,” says Tom Parsons, commercial business development manager for biojet fuel with AirBP. “We’re seeing improvement in the environment as a result of the reduction of industrial activity. I think that’s enabling people to see more clearly what is possible when we all act together in terms of making changes, and also the appreciation for what we have in terms of the natural environment around us.”

However strong those forces prove in the longer term, present action to prevent climate change may be sliding down the list of priorities as governments, industries and the public scramble to mitigate day-to-day damage done by the pandemic.

It is impossible to gain maximum carbon-reduction cost benefits if biofuel has to be transported long distances to an airport. Credit: AirBP

“[The pandemic] is impacting in the short term on the ability of operators and airlines to focus on bringing forward low-carbon solutions,” Parsons says. “We are seeing some deferral and delay in some of the things we’re working on—but not all. It’s still a priority for those in the industry that are able to maintain some focus on this despite other pressures. And I think that potentially more will come through than would have perhaps otherwise done, because societal expectations’ will probably increase.”

Many of the projects Parsons and others in the business-aviation industry have been pursuing involve increasing the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). Chemically identical to standard jet fuels, SAF can be derived from a range of renewable feedstocks and, after blending with Jet A1, can be used by any aircraft without modification. 

SAF production is still at relatively low volumes and significantly more expensive than fossil fuel. Regulatory pressure will help drive demand upward. From the beginning of this year, the Norwegian government has mandated that 0.5% of all jet fuel sold in the country must be SAF; other nations are expected to follow with similar stipulations. But demand likely will need to increase as an active choice of operators before significant cost reductions will be seen. 

Business aviation has been posititioned as a potential leader in this area, particularly during the post-COVID recovery phase. With commercial airlines possibly forced to operate with reduced capacity to enable distancing on board, their appetite to absorb higher fuel prices—or pass them on to passengers—is likely to be limited.

Even when an operator has committed to paying more, the availability of SAF at a specific airport may be an issue. Unless and until there are SAF plants near most major aviation hubs, SAF’s carbon-reduction effects will be limited as sea and ground transportation will add emissions to the product. To help solve this problem while promoting the use of SAF as widely as possible, the industry has devised a workaround. During the British Business and General Aviation Association’s conference in March, Bryan Stonehouse, global biofuels manager for Shell Aviation, explained how the system—referred to as “book-and-claim”—works: 

“The key thing for reducing carbon in the industry is to make sure the low-carbon fuels are actually being used, and used in a demand center that’s close to production. What book-and-claim does is allow somebody to buy the carbon credit attached to that fuel, then the fuel goes to the most logical airport. It allows people to create demand.”

There are still obstacles. Differences in national rules regarding carbon credits and how they are counted may make book-and-claim schemes more complicated in certain places. During the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year, the supply of SAF to Zurich airport was complicated because Swiss customs officials treated biofuel being treated as a product different from  standard fuel. The supply of SAF to Geneva ahead of EBACE was still a work in progress when the convention was canceled. But the fuel industry’s message to business aviation is clear: If you want to buy SAF, you can do so right now, and whether or not it ends up in your jet, it will be used somewhere, reducing emissions overall.

“Sustainable fuel is available, and we have a significant amount in storage, ready to supply right now,” Parsons explains. “The industry is ready to bring that product to those customers, whether it’s direct or through a more efficient supply chain or the book-and-claim approach to maximize the CO2 reduction from the use of that fuel.”

Angus Batey

Angus Batey has been contributing to various titles within the Aviation Week Network since 2009, reporting on topics ranging from defense and space to business aviation, advanced air mobility and cybersecurity.