States agree not to set targets as ICAO unveils its long-term vision on sustainable aviation fuels deployment
Mon 16 Oct 2017 – ICAO concluded its second Conference on Aviation and Alternative Fuels (CAAF/2) held in Mexico City with an agreement on a long-term vision for the development, production and supply of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) through to 2050. Delegates from Member States, industry and environmental groups had initially been asked to support ICAO’s Vision 2050 proposals for short, mid and long term goals that would ensure a 2% share of SAF in international aviation fuel demand by 2025, rising to 32% in 2040 and 50% by 2050. However, a number of States, along with industry and NGOs, failed to back the setting of targets and the conference settled instead for wording that calls for a “significant percentage” of SAF by 2050. The aviation industry said it welcomed the emphasis on developing robust sustainability criteria as a central component of alternative aviation fuels deployment.
Opening the conference, ICAO Council President Dr Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said current progress on reducing aviation emissions through technological innovation and streamlined operations was not sufficient to meet ICAO 2020 targets.
“Even after these have been accounted for, we are still left with a significant mitigation requirement,” he said. “Sustainable alternative fuels are critical to closing this gap.”
He noted that more than 40,000 flights had been conducted using sustainable fuels since they were first introduced and a number of airports were now offering such fuels to airlines interested in purchasing them.
“Through these numerous actions, the aviation sector has now supplied the proof of concept for sustainable aviation fuels, confirming their operational viability and the feasibility of producing them in sustainable ways which lessen the impact of aviation on the climate,” he told delegates.
The proposed ICAO Vision 2050 targets represented 5 million tonnes (Mt) per year of SAF being used by airlines in 2025, 128 Mt per year at the mid-term 2040 waypoint and 285 Mt/year by 2050.
ICAO figures show that international aviation consumed around 142 Mt of conventional jet fuel in 2010. By 2050 the UN agency estimates fuel consumption will reach 860 Mt if considering only rising demand for air travel and natural fleet renewal. If the potential contribution of advancing technology together with air traffic management and infrastructure use improvements are taken into account, the estimated fuel consumption could decrease to 570 Mt in 2050, representing a 71% share of the expected global – international plus domestic – aviation annual fuel burn. The ICAO Vision therefore only considers SAF usage on international flight routes.
Given accepted significant uncertainties in predicting the long-term contribution of SAF, ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) evaluated 120 SAF deployment scenarios for 2050, taking into consideration the global availability of resources, economic conditions, financial investments and policy decisions required to reach the assessed levels of global SAF production. The associated CO2 emissions reductions were calculated for each scenario.
The short-term goal of 5 Mt per year of SAF by 2025 is considered by the ICAO Secretariat as a “reasonable assumption”, based on current off-take agreements reached by airlines with biofuel producers of around 0.9 Mt per year. It sees recent policy decisions in countries like Norway, India, France and the UK to end the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by or before 2040 as driving large quantities of ‘green diesel’ – a current global capacity of 3.45 Mt/year – from road transport towards the aviation sector.
The Secretariat also believes international agreement on the SAF sustainability criteria under the ICAO CORSIA carbon offsetting scheme will address some of the uncertainties faced by industry and foster confidence in SAF investment.
CAEP narrowed down its 2050 forecast to four scenarios: low (4% SAF share of jet fuel consumption), illustrative (28%), intermediate (50%) and maximum (100%). Although 100% was possible, it says in a paper (WP/6) presented to CAAF/2, this would require 170 new biorefineries to be built annually from 2020 to 2050, at an approximate cost of $15-60 billion per year if growth occurred linearly. If investment and growth began slowly and ramped up over time, it estimates over 500 new biorefineries would have to be constructed every year in the late 2040s and almost 1,000 new biorefineries would be required in 2050, requiring capital investments of $1-3 billion per year in 2025 and $80-340 billion per year in 2050.
Achieving a 100% SAF consumption by 2050 could reduce net CO2 emissions by about 63%, determined CAEP. However, this would require the realisation of the highest assumed increases in agricultural productivity, highest availability of land for feedstock cultivation, highest residue removal rates, highest conversion efficiency improvements, largest reductions in the GHG emissions of utilities, as well as a strong market or policy emphasis on bioenergy in general and SAFs in particular.
“This implies that a large share of the globally available bioenergy resource would be devoted to producing aviation fuel, as opposed to other uses,” says the ICAO Secretariat.
The intermediate 2050 scenario with 50% substitution by SAF – the scenario proposed by the Secretariat – assumes improvements in fuel production efficiencies and high availability of bioenergy feedstocks, the production of which would need to be significantly incentivised by favourable markets or policy mechanisms.
The three targets, however, met with resistance from a number of States attending CAAF/2, with some calling into question whether biofuels provided a solution to the carbon neutrality of the aviation sector. In a paper to the conference (WP/20), the Russian Federation said the lack of land resources required in order to meet the world’s energy needs using biofuels was “a major concern”, adding: “Thus, since forested areas need to be cleared, vast amounts of carbon will be released, creating a carbon debt requiring centuries to repay.” The paper argued biofuel production posed a serious global risk to food and water resources.
In its paper (WP/26), China said it had proactively pursued the adoption and deployment of SAF since the first CAAF in 2009 and welcomed initiatives to maximise the contribution of such fuels to the environmentally sustainable future of international aviation. However, it had “serious concerns” with the goals set out by the Secretariat that had been “developed without full political and technical consultations among States”. It also said the uncertainty over the contribution of SAF to emissions reduction from international aviation made the ICAO carbon-neutral growth target (CNG2020) “impracticable”.
Supporters of the deployment goals put forward by the Secretariat, Brazil and Indonesia said in a joint paper (WP/18) that to ensure the long-term take-up of SAF, a mechanism should be developed and incorporated into the CORSIA review process that guaranteed a smooth transition from the use of market-based measures to the use of SAF. This, they suggested, could be achieved by establishing a ceiling that would be lowered year by year on the total amount of the growth in emissions post-2021 that could be neutralised through offsetting. The two countries expressed their concern that under present conditions, policies and mechanisms, it will be cheaper for aircraft operators to offset their emissions by purchasing emissions units than by covering the price gap between fossil fuels and SAF.
The United States’ view is that the role of ICAO in the global deployment of SAF should be as a facilitator rather than coming up with policies that direct State action. What might be a successful policy in one State may not be applicable to another and development and deployment will vary among States and regions, it argued in WP/16. “Thus, while we agree with a defined goal, we would not support specifying the means to achieve that goal,” it said.
It was important that States learn from one another, it added, and ICAO was ideally situated to facilitate information sharing and coordination.
ICAO’s facilitating role was supported in a joint paper submitted on behalf of industry (WP/25), which also encouraged States to put in place policy frameworks that strongly incentivised SAF development, production in use. While supporting the Secretariat’s aspirational 2025 goal of 5 Mt per year of SAF, the paper said there should be a focus on identifying pathways to achieve it, which should articulate the requisite policy drivers. However, industry believes there is too much uncertainty at present, particularly concerning the costs of SAF, to define a long-term goal.
“For that reason, we believe it would only be appropriate to consider defining a mid-term SAF aspirational goal, including identification of pathways for striving towards the goal, once progress and achievement of an aspirational 2025 goal can be assessed,” said the paper.
In its submission (WP/21) to CAAF/2, the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA), which represents environmental groups at ICAO, urged States to avoid endorsing volumetric targets for SAF. “In effect, the targets maximise the volume of SAF utilised rather than the amount of carbon abated,” it said. “This could result in substantial policy support going towards fuels that either increase aviation sector emissions or, at best, provide marginal benefits.”
It added that the CAEP scenarios relied heavily on optimistic assumptions on land availability for feedstock cultivation and did not take into account indirect land use change and other sustainability considerations.
The three-day conference, which included representatives from 29 Member States, concluded with an agreement on the 2050 Vision that replaced the initial reference to the aspirational goals with text that States “will seek to ensure that a significant percentage of current conventional aviation fuels would be substituted with sustainable alternatives by 2050.”
ICSA commended the States for rejecting the targets. “The version of the Vision that countries accepted is more reasonable and better reflects the risks of forging headlong into alternative fuels without putting climate change and sustainability concerns first,” said Brad Schallert, Deputy Director at World Wildlife Fund in an ICSA statement.
“Producing alternative fuels at scale globally is inherently risky and should be approached with caution. In ICSA’s view, the Vision should primarily inspire innovation and technological breakthroughs at a level required to meet the challenge of mitigating international aviation’s climate impact.”
Although supportive of a short-term aspirational goal, industry too was pleased that the targets were dropped and greater emphasis had been placed in the Vision on sustainability criteria, which industry representative Michael Gill of the Air Transport Action Group told the conference “should be at the heart of any vision on sustainable aviation fuels.”
He added in a statement after the conference: “Most importantly, delegates confirmed that any alternative fuel deployment should follow sustainability criteria currently being developed by a task force at ICAO, including representatives of environmental groups. Aviation industry representatives strongly supported this, as sustainability should be a central component of any deployment of these new fuels.
“The ICAO Vision represents a commitment from stakeholders meeting at ICAO to follow a path towards increasing deployment of sustainable aviation fuel, one of the key components of our industry’s climate action plan. Periodic reviews of the Vision should look to ramp-up ambition, including at the next conference before 2025. We can then look at the longer-term prospects with the hope that sustainable aviation fuel will make up a significant proportion of our fuel mix in 2050, bringing down emissions and diversifying our energy supply.
“We now urge governments all over the world to join with industry to promote and develop this new source of energy that can bring up to an 80% reduction in CO2 compared with traditional jet fuel. The Vision will need to be developed further over time, but it also sets industry and governments a challenge we will meet together.”
ICAO stressed the Vision was “a living instrument”, with progress towards achieving it regularly assessed through a stocktaking process.
“The new ICAO Vision agreed at the Mexico event will now help guide international civil aviation stakeholders as they work to employ sustainable fuel alternatives and significantly reduce aviation emissions,” said the UN agency in a statement.