The Biofuels Revolution Coming to the Friendly Skies

Sugarcane is the most energy efficient plant in the world and will play a vital role in the jet fuel revolution. With air travel expected to skyrocket in the coming decades, and carbon reduction a must, the aviation industry needs renewable options.
By Leticia Phillips | July 25, 2021

In the United States, cars and trucks account for the lion’s share of transportation greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), but aviation clocks in with a dangerously high 10 percent. With air travel expected to skyrocket in the coming decades, the industry knows it has a problem and that inaction will degrade both the climate and its reputation.

The aviation industry has pledged a 50 percent reduction in CO2 by 2050 (compared to 2005 levels), but there is no way around the fact that flying today remains the most carbon-intensive act an individual or organization can engage in. The Congressional Research Service reports that CO2 emissions from aviation are currently experiencing a faster rate of growth than other modes of transportation.

Thankfully, the aviation community is adapting, perhaps faster than most of the flying public knows. To their credit, the major airlines, manufacturers and shippers like FedEx and UPS are advocating policies and testing new sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) that will pay big climate dividends in the not-too-distant future.

According to McKinsey, widespread use of SAF could be transformative and result in a “reduction in carbon emissions of 70 percent to almost 100 percent.” McKinsey acknowledges the short-term drawbacks of SAF like cost and scalability but argues that airline “CEOs should view it [SAF] as a promising tool in their decarbonization tool kits.”

SAF is being used today, but it accounts for only a tiny fraction of fuel used.

The industry knows if it resists change, appears indifferent or moves too slowly, a solution may be imposed on them via heavy-handed regulations, reduced financing or evolving passenger attitudes that might threaten their business model. 

Change is in the air. Congress is considering legislation that would offer a tax incentive of “up to $2 for every gallon of sustainable aviation fuel.” Regardless of any incentives, the airlines have already committed to using two billion gallons of biofuel by 2030. The commitment came from members of Airlines for America, the trade association representing the big U.S. carriers. Reaching this goal will require an 84% annual average increase in SAF production through 2030.

Boeing announced that by the end of this decade, every aircraft it builds will be able to fly using 100 percent sustainable fuels. CEO Stan Deal said in January the company is “committed to working with regulators, engine companies and other key stakeholders to ensure our airplanes and eventually our industry can fly entirely on sustainable jet fuels.”

The aviation sector is preparing for this coming revolution, but how is my industry, the Brazilian sugarcane community, able to contribute to the production of SAF?

Sugarcane is the most energy efficient plant in the world and will play a vital role in the jet fuel revolution. The industry aligned itself with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as it introduced its market-based Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). CORSIA has deemed eligible the sustainable fuel farnesane, derived from sugarcane ethanol.

Farnesane is obtained biologically through sugar fermentation using biochemical conversion technology, namely the synthesized iso-paraffins pathway. The decarbonization value of this crop-based biofuel for aviation is evident and we hope that countries around the globe adopt policies that will incentivize the use and the production of SAF. We also look forward to opportunities for collaboration in this area between Brazil and the United States.

Thanks to a successful national ethanol policy and a robust flex fuel fleet, there are no longer any light-duty vehicles in Brazil powered by pure gasoline. One day in the not-so-distant future, I hope we’ll be able to say the same about jet airplanes.

Author: Leticia Phillips
North American Representative
Brazilian Sugarcane
Industry Association, UNICA
202.506.5299
leticia@unica.com.br