Sustainability schemes for aviation biofuels

The aviation industry is continuing with its efforts to become more sustainable even as it tries to adjust to a massive drop in demand caused by the pandemic. With the climate impact of flying well entrenched in the public’s consciousness, governments are being urged to ensure that measures to make the industry greener are tied to any bailouts. Biofuels are one key way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from flying, providing they are from de-forestation free supply chains and sustainably produced. 

The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) has been developed to provide a framework for the approval of low carbon fuels and biofuels. The key sustainability requirements were published a while ago and sustainability schemes for road transport biofuels were invited to apply for CORSIA recognition earlier in the year. ISCC, the market-leading scheme for biofuels on the European market, was involved in the development of CORSIA, so it is likely that it will gain approval. RSB, a niche scheme has just announced that it has applied for recognition. 

There are similarities and differences between the CORSIA and EU biofuels sustainability rules.  De-forestation free supply chains are required by CORSIA, as in the EU. The land use change rules and the cut-off dates are very similar. This means that the European rules that prevent biofuel production from primary forest, wetlands, or peat lands converted after January 2008 will apply to aviation biofuels worldwide.  Mass balance accounting rules are similar too. There are differences in the administrative details however. The auditing requirements, which can be very costly, seem to be more stringent for CORSIA than for some EU approved Schemes. CORSIA will be requiring external on-site audits for a sample of all biomass producing farms, at least for the initial audit. Some EU Schemes rely on cross compliance with EU farming rules and self-declarations.  Work on other criteria such as water use, soil management and social factors is still continuing.  

Operators are likely to be disappointed that, as yet, there does not seem to be any requirement for mutual recognition of approved schemes. This means that refineries and production plants can’t take feedstock certified by any approved scheme without getting multiple certifications. It has been an on-going problem with certification of road transport biofuels that has never been fully resolved, particularly for waste derived fuels. These problems are likely to come up again. 

The greenhouse gas savings methodology seems to be designed to favour wastes of all types. Credits are allowed for avoided landfill emissions and there is even a ‘Recycling Emissions Credit’ due to additional recyclable material being recovered and sorted during feedstock preparation. Perhaps this is how a new plant to convert household waste to sustainable aviation fuel that has just been approved in the UK, can claim a GHG saving of 70%. 

Indirect land-use change affects for crop-based biofuels must be included in the calculation, unless the raw materials are specifically low ILUC risk, which is hard to demonstrate. On the plus side, CORSIA does offer maximum flexibility of eligible biomass feedstocks, with no restrictions on sustainably produced crops. Also, the minimum GHG saving requirement after ILUC considerations, is only 10%.

But will CORSIA increase the demand for aviation biofuel? Unfortunately, offset schemes are allowed under CORSIA and these are likely to be a cheaper and easier method of compliance than biofuel. But there are still positives for those countries with plenty of agricultural land but no fossil fuel reserves.  They can now start producing their own internationally recognised sustainable raw materials for aviation biofuel with the goal of getting a foothold in a new market. Let’s hope, for both them and us, that aviation biofuels really do take off.

Published: 27 May 20

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