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Everything you always wanted to know about SAF (but were too afraid to ask)

“It causes deforestation”
“It increases food prices”
“It won’t prevent climate change”

These are all common claims made about sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and they make for alarming reading. But are they true?

The answer, as is usually the case, is in shades of grey. The production of SAF can have serious negative consequences. Equally, it can be made in such a way that has incredible climate impact, protects forests and other ecosystems and ensures food security, land rights and more. In fact, some of the most innovative alternative fuels are being made from waste materials, including recycled carbon, which further reduces many environmental and social risks. This new generation of fuels does not necessarily have a bio-based component.

We know that people are concerned about the real impacts of travel – so in a world of information overload how do passengers differentiate the ‘good’ alternative fuels from the ‘bad’ ones before they board?

There are broadly three concerns about the use of alternative fuels: social, environmental and climate impact – and to make a rational choice about the fuels they use, consumers would need to ask the following questions:

  • Does the production of this fuel take away from food production and increase food prices or reduce the availability of food? (No)
  • Are people being exploited in the production of this fuel? (No)
  • Has this fuel been produced using material sourced from land where land rights have been respected and consent has been granted by land rights holders? (Yes)
  • Does the production of this fuel uplift the communities in which it occurs? (Yes)
  • Are ecosystems – including forests – and biodiversity negatively impacted by the production of the fuel? (No)
  • Is soil health maintained? (Yes)
  • Is surface and groundwater quality assured? (Yes)
  • Does the fuel production contribute to air pollution? (No)
  • Does this fuel ensure a meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reduction compared to a conventional one? (Yes)

If your fuel provider got all those questions right, and can prove it, they could make a powerful claim – you will be flying on truly sustainable fuel.

In reality, travellers won’t find getting these answers easy. But it is absolutely essential that any use of SAF is subjected to a rigorous analysis of whether it can fulfil these requirements.

Fortunately for passengers, there is a system in place that helps the industry to make the best choice when it comes to fuel.

The RSB has worked with organisations around the world – including NGOs, civil, society, governments, academia and fuel producers – to develop a standard that is considered the most credible and most trusted available.

What is sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)?

SAF is a low-carbon alternative for the aviation industry. These non-petroleum-based drop-in aviation fuels are generally produced from bio-based feedstocks including waste, residues and end-of-life products – as well as fossil waste.

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Figure 1: The renewable production of SAF

The use of SAF, along with other efficiencies in operations and aircraft design, is intended to reduce the industry’s growing share of greenhouse gas emissions and lower the overall climate impact of aviation.

However, without proper sustainability certification, some of these fuels risk having negative social and environmental impacts such as negligible greenhouse gas emissions reductions (or even increased emissions), reduced food security through the conversion of food-producing land to feedstock production, environmental degradation from deforestation, and unsustainable soil and water usage.

The RSB sustainability framework is a tool that can be used by everyone involved in the production and use of aviation fuel (and other products) to confirm real environmental and social sustainability in every part of its journey from field and factory to tank.

Figure 2: The 12 Principles of RSB’s sustainability framework.

An RSB-certified fuel shows the world that it has been produced in an environmentally, socially and economically responsible way.

Travelling on an RSB-certified fuel also guarantees a minimum of 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring that key issues like deforestation, food security, water quality, land and human rights have been taken care of.

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Figure 3: Quote form Richard Branson on RSB certification

Going beyond certification, RSB is leveraging the power of its sustainability framework to advance global policy, feedstock production and innovative solutions to build real, credible positive social, environmental and climate impacts into the foundation of the emerging bio-based and circular economy.

RSB’s multi-stakeholder member community are convening around new technology via our Power-to-X Working Group; exploring and advancing sustainability at a policy level via the SAF Policy Platform; unpacking truly innovative approaches to creating scale with our leadership on Book & Claim; unlocking and advancing the role of airports in the SAF value chain via the Sustainable Airports Platform; working long-term to create an enabling environment for the bioeconomy via our multi-year landscape level programmes with The Boeing Company; supporting airlines to demonstrate their compliance to CORSIA via our RSB CORSIA certification; and so much more.

At RSB we are dedicated to helping airlines and the aviation industry – as well as other sectors, including shipping, textiles, and so much more – to make the best possible choices in the years ahead as the fight against climate change shifts into a higher gear. The RSB sustainability framework is helping industry unlock the real and meaningful sustainability that passengers and consumers demand and that will not only aid in combatting climate change, but also create new green jobs, support social upliftment and protect ecosystems.

Explore more about our approach to the aviation sector here.

RSB as a long-term trusted partner for the aviation industry. RSB is supported by aviation industry leaders who participate in our multi-stakeholder roundtable, developing robust sustainability approaches for the industry and collaborating with pioneers from industry, NGOs and government. These members include Airbus, Boeing, Air France, British Airways, KLM, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and many others.

This industry commitment is supported by global recognition of RSB’s most robust approach to sustainability and its multi-stakeholder community.

The International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation’s (ICSA) vision for a “zero climate impact” international aviation pathway towards 2050 endorses RSB as the “best-in-class sustainability certification standard for advanced aviation fuels”. In its Waypoint 2050 report on balancing aviation growth with tackling the climate emergency the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) identify joining RSB as one of the simplest early actions that can be taken to help accelerate an energy transition.

Note: this article is amended and republished from a 2019 piece written for Flightnook by RSB’s Outreach & Engagement Director, Hannah Walker .

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