Attention towards sustainable aviation fuel takes off

The entire industry needs to come together to find innovative solutions such as SAF to reduce the carbon footprint created by business travel
  • Travel programmes are becoming part of organisations’ sustainability strategy
  • Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) has potential to drive the decarbonisation of aviation
  • Production of SAF needs to scale up to commercially viable levels
The entire industry needs to come together to find innovative solutions such as SAF to reduce the carbon footprint created by travel

Sustainability is now a growing priority for the travel ecosystem, with United Nations Climate Change noting a doubling in the rate at which businesses and local governments are committing to net-zero emissions since the start of the pandemic.

And with aircraft operations contributing to about three per cent of global emissions, an industry-wide strategy – such as looking into sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) – to tackle climate change is critical.

Made up of grains, plants, algae and animal fats, SAFs can reduce a flight’s carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent. However, commercialising this eco-friendly fuel has been difficult due to its high price – three times higher than current aviation fuel – and the lack of manufacturing and fueling infrastructure.

To get around this obstacle, American Express Global Business Travel (AMEX GBT) and Shell Aviation are working on a plan to increase the supply and use of SAF.

“Both Shell Aviation and GBT are respectively having conversations with airlines and corporations about how we can help them tackle their emissions from aviation with SAF. Taking our alliance public allows us to make those conversations more detailed and useful, as well as to further identify any interested parties who would like to work with us,” Jo Sully, vice president APAC, of AMEX GBT, stated.

In terms of corporate take-up, Sully said “customers confirm that sustainability remains a priority for their travel programmes”. In fact, AMEX GBT now advises clients on how they can embed green policies in their programmes by choosing locations that minimise group travel emissions and sourcing from providers that minimise food wastage, food miles and single-use plastic.

In a similar move on June 5’s World Environment Day, CWT partnered with Delta to purchase enough SAF to cover the projected fuel usage from all of CWT’s travellers on Delta.

Richard Johnson, senior director, CWT Solutions Group, shared with TTGmice the motivations behind the initiative: “Sustainable aviation fuel is an exciting development in the (carbon dioxide) reduction arena because it allows organisations to focus less on offsetting and more on overall de-carbonisation. As we see a renewed focus on the environment from within our industry post-pandemic, we are observing a desire to help make SAF achieve the economies of scale necessary to become commonly viable.”

According to Johnson, CWT’s clients are asking how the TMC can help them meet their environmental objectives while achieving compelling ROI for their travel spending.

“Their travel programme is an important part of their sustainability strategy and they want their TMC to provide products and services with an improved environmental impact that will contribute to a more sustainable travel sector,” he revealed.

Sustainability gaining priority among buyers
Travel buyers in the IT and pharmaceutical sectors told TTGmice that attention is now shifting to how travel can play a bigger role in corporate strategy to mitigate climate change and grow sustainably.

Adriana Nainggolan, travel programme manager Asia-Pacific of Autodesk, said: “As a whole, our company has been participating in carbon emission reduction such as using renewable energy and helping our own customers to reduce, reuse and recycle.”

While Autodesk has been offsetting its carbon footprint, Nainggolan said that “the travel programme wasn’t emphasised because the impact might have been considered small”.

But now and for the first time, sustainability will be part of the Autodesk RFP checklist as the company looks to achieve net zero impact. Nainggolan elaborated: “We didn’t have this in our previous RFPs and will include it when we are planning to go out to bid in November this year.”

On how TMCs can support the initiative, she said: “They can support corporate sustainability programmes through reporting and setting their product offering to support a customer’s travel policy. For example, making sure that direct flights are displayed on their booking tool, or hotels listed are only green hotels, etc.”

A corporate travel manager, who has requested anonymity, said he was impressed by United Airlines’ step-by-step sustainability strategy which was shared at the recent United Airlines Asia-Pacific Corporate Forum.

In the presentation, Scott Kirby, CEO, United Airlines, pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 100 per cent – without the use of carbon offsets – by 2050.

The corporate travel manager shared: “Efforts in our company so far have been limited to manufacturing activities and the focus has not filtered down to travel and meetings. But we are keeping an eye on it. Although we are not asking our TMCs for travel and meeting sustainability reports yet, it is a matter of time as it is now on the radar.”

Meanwhile, he said his company had migrated to “a 100 per cent hybrid fleet (of cars)” in some cities and will in the next three to four years move to “100 per cent electrification” and a car-sharing model for employees.

Another anonymous corporate travel manager revealed that her company in the US was investing in and working with its preferred airline – which is setting up an oil refinery that turns food waste into SAF – and use more renewable energy. In addition, the company was also working with its airline partner on recycling initiatives.

Airlines pick up SAF focus
For corporate travel managers looking for airline partners that are on the same sustainability page, Emirates and Korean Air may just stand out. Both airlines are exploring viable SAF avenues on their own.

This year, Emirates operated flights powered by SAF from Sweden and Norway where local programmes made it accessible. The airline has also received its first delivery of an A380 that is partially powered by SAF.

While Emirates has yet to partner with a TMC on this initiative, a spokesperson said the airline has taken steps towards emission reduction such as operating fuel-efficient aircraft, and implementing fuel-efficient practices where possible.

Meanwhile, Korean Air recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hyundai Oilbank, a petroleum and refinery company in South Korea, for the manufacturing and usage of SAF. Both companies will be developing a foundation for biofuel manufacturing and its usage; exploring opportunities for SAF usages in the market; raising awareness on SAF; and proposing relevant policies.

Korean Air is no stranger to SAF, for in 2017 it became the first airline in South Korea to mix biofuel extracted from plants such as corn with jet fuel.

Despite the airlines’ grand intentions, SAF availability is a challenge.

The Emirates spokesperson detailed: “In 2019, fewer than 200,000 tonnes of SAF was produced globally, which is less than 0.1 per cent of the jet fuel used by commercial airlines. According to the World Economic Forum report on SAFs, if all SAF projects that have been publicly announced are completed, capacity would only reach one per cent of expected global jet fuel demand in 2030.”

As such, an appropriate mix of incentives and policies will be needed for SAF production to scale up to commercially viable levels. Over the next decade, the development of ‘power-to-liquid’ fuels, which are made from hydrogen and carbon dioxide, will give a huge boost to the supply of SAF, the spokesperson noted. – Additional reporting by Caroline Boey

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