A new handbook published by Environmental Defense Fund provides new guidance and approaches for companies, airlines, policymakers and fuel producers to effectively advance the use of high-integrity sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and support the decarbonization of flying. The High-Integrity SAF Handbook unveils innovative solutions to the sector’s most pressing challenges in transitioning from fossil jet fuel to cleaner fuels.
Aviation is responsible for driving 3.5% of human-related climate change impacts. If it were a country, aviation would be one of the world’s top 10 emitters. SAF, which can be produced from a variety of sources, or ‘feedstocks’, could help fully decarbonize aviation by 2050. However, to deliver these climate benefits, SAF must be high-integrity—meaning it credibly reduces emissions, adheres to strong environmental and social safeguards, and is accurately accounted for to avoid double counting of emissions reductions.
“If we take the right steps to advance the use of high-integrity SAF, it has incredible potential to change the nature of flight for the better,” said report author Pedro Piris-Cabezas, Director of Sustainable International Transport and Lead Senior Economist at Environmental Defense Fund. “This Handbook reveals a pathway to do just that. We can create a cleaner future of flight, without sacrificing ecosystems or communities, while cleaning up the air near airports. We can do all that by producing, investing in, purchasing and incentivizing high-integrity SAF.”
While SAF has potential to reduce the climate impact of flying, there are many elements and obstacles to consider in order to ensure it delivers high-integrity climate, environmental and social benefits. It can be difficult for individual travelers, companies who rely on air transport, airlines, investors, and policymakers seeking to identify high-integrity SAF and leverage the new fuel in their climate strategies.
One major consideration when deploying SAF is the need to avoid causing indirect land-use changes (ILUC), meaning it does not divert edible crops or land used to grow food, and does not contribute to deforestation or habitat destruction. Preventing negative environmental and social consequences will also ensure a level playing field across SAF pathways that will help channel investments efficiently avoiding distortions. This will allow the emerging class of electrofuels produced from renewable electricity, water, and carbon dioxide, to compete on equal footing with bio-based SAFs.
“We won’t solve our climate problems by producing SAF in ways that cause deforestation or divert land that is needed to grow food and feed. If we aren’t careful, we can do more harm than good,” said Piris-Cabezas. “By channeling investment to high-integrity SAF that delivers the highest emissions reductions, which would also be the most cost-effective way forward, we can benefit the climate, ecosystems and communities all at once.”
Microsoft Corporation contributed to the handbook’s preface, outlining how the company intends to support high-integrity SAF in its own efforts to become carbon negative by 2030. The company has increased its internal Scope 3 business travel fee to $100 per mtCO2e to support the purchase of SAF, a price signal that will have the potential to unlock high-integrity SAF soon when paired with effective national policies. Microsoft has been a longtime leader in advancing SAF and has contributed actively to the thinking behind this handbook through fruitful cooperation with EDF since 2019.
“There is increased corporate momentum on carbon reduction commitments. But for all that energy to help achieve climate stability effectively and transparently, we need to accelerate the maturation and adoption of industry standards for carbon accounting,” said Lucas Joppa, Chief Environment Officer, and Julia Fidler, Group Sustainability Manager, Procurement, with Microsoft Corporation, in a foreword to the handbook. “This handbook provides a solid foundation to help build a resilient sustainability and accounting framework for sustainable aviation fuels that can guide investment decisions while avoiding stranded assets and unintended consequences on ecosystems and people.”
In addition to providing guidance for companies, the handbook also identifies three key opportunities for policymakers to support high-integrity SAF as a pathway toward net zero aviation:
Policy should support the production of high-integrity SAF by ensuring only feedstocks with low indirect land-use change (ILUC) risk are eligible for financial support. A low ILUC risk means that producing SAF feedstock does not divert edible crops or land used to grow food, and does not contribute to deforestation or habitat destruction. By focusing on SAF produced sustainably, policymakers can ensure we achieve the greatest climate benefit while avoiding unintended consequences on ecosystems, communities or food systems.
Policy should leverage financial support for high-integrity SAF that offers the highest emissions reductions. Not all SAF has the same potential to deliver strong climate benefits. For instance, electro-fuels generated with surplus renewable energy promise greater climate mitigation benefits than SAF produced using sustainable vegetable oils or wastes fats. Policymakers can and should ensure that investments are channeled to SAF that deliver the highest emissions reductions, as these will deliver the most cost-effective way forward.
Policy can support processes to avoid double counting and make sure emissions reductions from SAF are accurately accounted for. Policymakers can prepare to properly account for SAF use and prevent double counting by supporting the development of robust and transparent registries.