Sustainable Aviation Fuel Northwest report on bio-based jet fuel done right

Yesterday, a diverse group stakeholders in the Pacific Northwest announced the completion of the first-ever assessment of its kind in the United States to evaluate biomass options as possible sources for producing sustainable jet fuel. The initiative, known as the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) was led by Alaska Airlines, The Boeing Company, Port of Seattle, Port of Portland, Spokane International Airport, and Washington State University and included over forty stakeholders representing aviation industry leaders, biofuel producers, government agencies, non-profit advocacy organizations (including NRDC), research institutions, agricultural producers and other interested parties.  The effort analyzed opportunities and challenges associated with biomass options and produced “flight paths” for developing complete supply chains for four feedstocks (oilseeds, logging slash that would otherwise be burned or decay, municipal solid waste, and algae).

Most importantly, the aviation leaders who convened SAFN identified sustainability as a key concern from the very beginning.  As we have written about previously, not all bioenergy is sustainable energy and the production of biofuels without appropriate safeguards can lead to increased carbon emissions, unacceptable competition with food, impacts to water quantity and quality, destruction of critical habitats and other issues.  The SAFN report highlights the importance of sustainability in creating renewable fuels for the aviation industry and specifically relies on the global Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) standard to frame the analysis.  The RSB is a multi-stakeholder initiative, representing a global consensus of more than 120 organizations from industry and civil society; and includes a voluntary certification system based on environmental, social and economic principles and criteria.  The certification program was launched in March and is now available for producers who wish to pursue certification.  NRDC supports the RSB because we believe that it is crucial for biofuels to be produced in a way that is consistent with sustainable land use choices and natural resource management practices that protect critical ecosystem values, while contributing to both positive economic and social development.

We applaud the SAFN effort for two reasons. First, we believe this initiative represents an important step forward in the policy debate around bioenergy. Too many policies are being developed that ignore the importance of accurate carbon accounting and sustainability concerns. SAFN stakeholders agreed that while we need to find replacements for petroleum fuels, we also need to analyze the full life cycle impacts of potential biomass pathways and technologies and that sustainability should be a crucial consideration as policies are shaped for biofuels generally and more specifically for aviation.

Second, in a world with a limited supply of sustainable biomass and limited low-carbon energy options for transportation, the aviation sector needs to be a high priority. We can and should be electrifying cars and short-haul trucks, but planes aren't going to be running on batteries anytime soon.