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COP26 climate event highlights cargo airlines’ shift to cleaner jet fuel

Amazon Air, DHL, Kuehne + Nagel step up for sustainable aviation fuel; Airbus tests ‘drafting’ race technique for fuel conservation

Airlines are trying to replace jet fuel with cleaner biofuels. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The move toward sustainable aviation fuels gained momentum this week as cargo and passenger airline interests, in conjunction with the U.N. climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, took more steps to meet the new goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The aviation sector accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, which are expected to rise rapidly with the Department of Energy projecting jet fuel use will double in 30 years. Airlines increasingly realize that their long-term survival depends on seriously tackling climate change, just as safety is a prerequisite to operate.

On Wednesday, Amazon Air (NASDAQ: AMZN), the retail and logistics giant’s in-house cargo airline, along with Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK), JetBlue (NYSE: JBLU) and United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) became the first to join the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA), which was created to drive investment in jet fuel made from waste and biomass, and accelerate the transition to net-zero emissions air transport.

DHL Express, part of Deutsche Post DHL Group, announced a new partnership with Neste to supply sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) at the carrier’s hub at East Midlands Airport in the U.K.

Kuehne + Nagel, the world’s largest airfreight forwarder, said it will offer customers the option to purchase SAF for each shipment if they want to minimize the environmental impact. Other logistics companies have limited SAF substitution programs on specific routes, but Kuehne + Nagel’s product is comprehensive. And Air Canada (OTCUS: ACDVF) said it will work with Carbon Engineering Ltd. to identify potential opportunities for direct capture of carbon from jet engines and how it can be removed from the atmosphere or turned into SAF.

On Thursday, The International Air Cargo Association released a sustainability road map that identifies concrete actions industry should take to contribute to international targets on sustainable development and climate change. Decarbonization is one of eight priority areas for airfreight.

Meanwhile, officials from 23 governments at the COP26 conference, including the U.S., pledged to work with the International Civil Aviation Organization and others to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement goal for global warming not to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The industry views SAF as the best near-term solution to achieving new targets, along with operational improvements and infrastructure, as it develops electric and hydrogen propulsion technology for clean aircraft of the future. 

SAF can be produced from waste oil and fats, green and municipal waste, nonfood crops, or carbon capture. 

Jet engines today can take a 50/50 blend of  SAF, which reduces CO2 emissions by up to 80%. Boeing and Airbus are working to get certification for engines that operate 100% on SAF, which industry officials expect by the end of the decade. 

Last month, the International Air Transport Association, which represents airlines, set a new target for carbon-neutral flying by the middle of the century but said achieving it requires a collective effort by all stakeholders. 

The net-zero commitment implies that a cumulative total of 21.2 gigatons of carbon will need to be abated between now and 2050. IATA’s baseline scenario calls for 65% of emissions to be abated through SAF. An additional 13% will be erased through new propulsion technology, with efficiency improvements accounting for 3% of the total goal. The remainder could be dealt with through carbon capture and storage and offsets. 

The aviation sector is counting on a supportive government policy framework to enable its energy transition. The trade association favors incentives over mandates requiring certain quantities of SAF be used, saying they reduce project risk, create competition and keep prices down.

Under President Joe Biden, the U.S. government is targeting 3 billion gallons of SAF production by 2030, representing more than 10% of estimated jet fuel consumption. By 2050 it wants 35 billion gallons of SAF, enough to power the entire U.S. aviation sector. The administration also announced an investment of more than $200 million, including matching private funds, for advanced aviation technologies that will reduce fuel use, emissions and noise. And it is working with Congress to pass a tax credit for SAFs to bring down the cost and stimulate production.

“Our view is that just like vehicles on the ground, the future of aviation is a sustainable one and we are so eager to capture the economic benefits and the jobs that that innovation will generate for our citizens. But we also welcome global competition because we believe U.S. innovators will thrive more under that kind of healthy pressure, and because a race for climate technology means a better chance of reducing emissions before it’s too late to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttegieg said at the COP26 International Aviation Climate Coalition meeting.

Scaling up SAF supply

A complete shift away from fossil fuels for air transport by 2050 is possible with SAF made from waste feedstock and rotational cover crops gradually transitioning toward fuels generated from low-carbon electricity, according to a September report from the Air Transport Action Group. It envisions new technology options such as electric and hydrogen aircraft for short-haul flights, with SAF supporting all medium- and long-haul operations. 

Airbus says it is confident it can produce a hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2035.

The desire to reduce the carbon intensity of flying is hampered by supply and cost challenges. SAF currently represents less than 0.1% of global aviation fuel due to diffuse demand costs four times as much as conventional jet fuel. Achieving pollution targets will require commercial SAF production at scale, proponents say.

The (SABA) was launched in April by the Environmental Defense Fund and green-energy nonprofit RMI to signal to suppliers that there is strong airline demand for greater SAF production. 

“We are excited to partner with the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance to launch a new Aviators Group to promote the development of sustainable aviation fuel solutions,” said Sarah Rhoads, vice president of Amazon Global Air, in a statement. “We’re already reducing carbon across our air network, from our ground operations — where we were the first to use electric main deck loaders in North America — to our fleet and network design. By working together with other companies, we are demonstrating there is strong and growing demand for the rapid deployment of cost-effective sustainable aviation fuels, which will help Amazon meet our commitment to reach net-zero carbon by 2040.”

Alaska Air has also set a goal of net-zero carbon by 2040. Last month it formed an investment arm to advance emerging technology that will accelerate the airline’s progress toward net zero carbon emissions. 

In addition to inaugurating the Aviators Group, SABA announced the addition of Meta (formerly the Facebook company) into its founding customers group, which includes Bank of America, Boeing (NYSE: BA), Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, McKinsey & Co., Microsoft, Netflix and Salesforce. Airline customers that can’t buy SAF directly buy SAF certificates representing emission reductions for use toward their climate goals, increasing the demand signal and incentive to produce more SAF.

The program builds on recent SAF purchase partnerships between airlines and corporate customers by providing a standardized, scalable approach and a system for tracking and verifying credible SAF purchases. The cost of an SAF certificate represents the price premium of SAF compared to jet kerosene from fossil fuels, minus any government incentives. SABA says it is striving to make SAF certificates available by the end of next year, adding that the process is taking more time because of a lack of transparency in the jet fuel market.

SABA is developing an SAF Sustainability Framework designed to ensure SAF contributes to credible emissions reductions and doesn’t degrade the environment or compete with food and water.

Cargo airlines, freight forwarders and shippers need to contribute by demonstrating an interest in flying on SAF, TIACA said in its sustainability report. Air cargo companies should also transition to cleaner ground vehicles used at airports and for road distribution, it said.

DHL’s cargo airline said it will do its part with the purchase of more than 60 million euros ($70.6 million) worth of SAF by mid-2022 at East Midlands, eliminating about 70,000 tons of CO2. The company has a 2030 target of meeting at least 30% of its fuel needs in aviation through sustainable fuel.

Neste will be DHL’s main SAF supplier at the U.K. airport, which supports about 200 flights per week. The fuel is produced from used cooking oil.

The U.K. government is studying policy proposals to encourage increased use of SAF.

DHL has already introduced SAF in San Francisco and Amsterdam and said it plans to equip more airports with SAF this year.

Kuehne+Nagel said the new SAF option for shippers is available on all air freight quoting platforms and channels. The price is instantly calculated based on weight, rather than per liter or CO2 ton avoided, and presented as a selectable choice.

Lufthansa Cargo and German logistics giant DB Schenker recently extended their weekly carbon-free freighter flights between Frankfurt and Shanghai, China, until March 22. Under the program, the trip’s fuel requirements are covered by SAF, amortized over time through other flights that use a mix of biofuel and jet fuel. The companies purchase SAF, which is fed into the refueling system at Frankfurt Airport so that each aircraft subsequently refueled has a small blend of SAF, enabling them to claim credit for a carbon-neutral flight. Telecommunications network provider Nokia has signed up for DB Schenker’s fuel option.

Over the next five months, Nokia will ship 10 tons of communications network equipment each week from a production facility in Shanghai to its European hub in Tilburg in the Netherlands. The shipment is entirely covered by SAF to reduce 100% of carbon emissions during the life cycle, avoiding any offsetting. Land transport elements will be covered utilizing another advanced type of biofuel, hydrogenated vegetable oil.

The alternative fuel flights save around 174 tons of conventional kerosene every week, according to Lufthansa Cargo. During the summer flight schedule, the initiative achieved a net reduction of 20,250 tons of greenhouse gases. In the upcoming winter flight schedule, from the end of October to the end of March, another 14,175 tons are expected to be diverted from the atmosphere.

All-cargo operator Cargolux last month announced the start of a SAF program, but provided no details about how it works.

British Airways earlier this week demonstrated the capabilities of SAF, powering the airline’s first flight back to the U.S. since border restrictions were lifted, with a 35% blend of SAF. That is the highest level for a commercial trans-Atlantic flight ever, according to London Heathrow Airport. It is urging the U.K. government to introduce a price stability mechanism to foster investment in production, as well as mandate 10% usage by 2030 and at least 50% by 2050. 

Air Canada is following the lead of United and FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX), which are investing heavily in carbon capture and sequestration in geologic formations. The carrier said it will work with Carbon Engineering to commercialize its carbon capture technology. The carbon can be stored underground or used to produce ultra-low carbon SAF by combining the CO2 with clean hydrogen, the companies said.

Ahead of COP26, Air Canada, Lufthansa, and United became founding members of the Aviation Climate Taskforce. The non-profit organization, made up of 10 global airlines and the Boston Consulting Group, was established to accelerate research and advance innovation related to emerging decarbonization technologies, including SAF.

Also, AirFlo and Tiger Freight joined Air France KLM Martinair Cargo’s SAF program to reduce the carbon emissions they produce when shipping flowers and perishables from Kenya and Zimbabwe. Their fixed annual investment will help procure SAF by covering the price difference between conventional jet fuel and SAF, the airline said.

Borrowing from bike racers

On Tuesday, Airbus conducted the first long-haul demonstration of formation flight in commercial airspace with two A350 aircraft flying 3 kilometers apart from Toulouse, France, to Montreal. The concept is similar to how bicycle or auto racers tuck close behind another racer to take advantage of a low pressure pocket and expend less energy. 

The aircraft manufacturer said more than six tons of CO2 emissions were saved on the trip, confirming the potential for more than a 5% fuel saving on long-haul flights.

The ability for the second plane to closely follow the leader was made possible with new flight control systems developed by Airbus. The systems position the follower aircraft safely in the wake updraft of the leader, allowing it to reduce engine thrust and fuel consumption. The principle can be observed with large migrating birds, such as geese, which fly together in a distinct V-shaped formation.

Airbus officials said they are optimistic that the technology will be deployed for passenger aircraft around the middle of this decade. The operational concept needs to be certified by aviation authorities before airlines can adopt it. 

Getting approval in Europe will bear watching. Regulators there have yet to adopt the Single European Sky concept, which IATA says would shorten flight patterns and immediately reduce emissions by 6%. The inefficiency in the current air traffic control system in Europe contributes 10% to 12% in excess fuel use and CO2 emissions, according to the group.

New operational efficiencies were also at the heart of an Etihad Airways flight from London to Abu Dhabi last month. Using a combination of SAF and improved flight management the flight reduced CO2 emissions by 85,980 pounds and fuel burn by 3,968 pounds. Etihad’s fleet is being used by Boeing as a testbed for sustainability improvements.

Etihad said the Boeing 787 flight was the first commercial flight to explore contrail avoidance. Working with U.K-based data analytics firm Satavia, engineers identified areas of ice super-saturated regions in the atmosphere where harmful contrails are likely to form, and adjusted the flight route to avoid these areas. The strategy avoided the production of approximately 70.5 tons of CO2e, with a fuel penalty of only 220 pounds.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]