Reducing Aviation Emissions By Increasing Sustainable Aviation Fuel?

The Biden Administration recently launched a plan to reduce aviation emissions by 20 percent by 2030 by increasing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The plan includes actions by several federal departments, including the Departments of Energy, Transportation, and Agriculture, along with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge

As part of its plan, the administration launched the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge. The Challenge aims to increase the production of SAF by at least three billion gallons a year by 2030. The Challenge also plans to have enough SAF to meet 100 percent of aviation fuel demand, which is projected to be around 35 billion gallons a year. To be considered a SAF, the fuel must achieve at least a 50 percent reduction in life cycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional fuel.

Funding to support sustainable aviation fuel 

The administration is increasing funding for SAF to help achieve the aims of the Challenge, which include:

  • The Federal Aviation Administration giving 14 grant awards with fiscal year 2021 funds to the Aviation Sustainability CENTer (ASCENT) university center of excellence totaling more than $3.6M. The grants will support the SAF approval in conducting evaluation tests of new fuels. 
  • The Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office recently awarded $35 million for 11 projects developing feedstock and algae technologies, plus $61 million for projects to advance biofuels and support the reduced cost of developing SAF. 
  • The DOE Loan Programs Office offers up to $3 billion in loan guarantees for commercial-scale SAF projects using innovative technology.

Unchecked aviation emissions will increase

Aviation currently accounts for 11 percent of U.S. emissions from the transportation sector. Left unchecked, the emissions from aviation will increase. Commercial traffic increased almost four times faster than fuel efficiency improvement, according to a report. Carbon emissions from all commercial operations increased by 29 percent from 2013 to 2019. Most of those emissions came from passenger transport. The U.S. is the largest passenger market, emitting 23 percent of the carbon emissions from that sector of aviation. 

The problems with Biden’s plan

There are problems with the Biden administration’s plan. One of them is the use of SAF, also known as biofuels, which the Sierra Club calls “neither carbon-neutral nor sustainable.” Certain types of pollutants are emitted more by biofuels than conventional diesel. Biofuels can have a bigger carbon footprint than gasoline. Corn ethanol is the most common type of biofuels, and it is “actually at least as carbon-intensive as gasoline from oil,” according to MIT Technology Review.

Increasing corn production can cause farmers to decrease crop rotation, which is necessary for soil health. The EPA’s assessment points out that because biofuel production needs land and water, it may cause “several undesirable effects.” One of those undesirable effects is changing land-use patterns which may increase emissions. Biofuels can emit more emissions than some conventional fuels, according to the assessment.

Biden’s plan relies on the use of biofuels instead of on technologies proven to deliver emissions reductions. Katherine García, Acting Director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign, urged the administration “to set strong emissions standards for aircraft using technology we know can deliver real reductions, instead of offering false promises and unsustainable solutions.”

There is another problem with Biden’s plan. It relies on aspirational goals instead of a government mandate or incentives. “Aspirational goals like this don’t move markets,” Dan Rutherford,” overseer of the aviation research at the International Council on Clean Transportation, told AP News.

Photo by Arthur Edelmans on Unsplash

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman
Gina-Marie Cheeseman, freelance writer/journalist/copyeditor Twitter: @gmcheeseman

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