Energy analyst and project officer, WWF South Africa
WHY SOUTH AFRICA SHOULD INVEST IN LOCAL SUSTAINABLE AVIATION FUEL (SAF) PRODUCTION
The aviation industry plays a critical role in South Africa (SA)’s economy, as it facilitates local and international trade and tourism. While aviation-related emissions typically ‘fly under the radar’, the industry’s climate impact is insidious and could have significant consequences if unabated. At present, greenhouse gas emissions from SA’s aviation sector account for over 8 % of the country’s transport emissions.
Transport-related carbon emissions could impact international travel as climate-conscious travellers shun carbon-intensive long haul flights to our shores. They will also reduce the competitiveness of SA’s exports once Europe’s carbon border adjustment mechanism kicks in. Thus, it’s critical to find a solution to address SA’s aviation emissions.
The answer lies in sustainable aviation fuels, or SAF, because, unlike road or rail transport, direct electrification is not a solution. SAF are low-carbon, alternative fuels which are typically made from bio-based feedstocks such as energy crops, wastes and residues. They can also be produced from fossil-waste such as carbon monoxide-rich industrial waste gas. An important characteristic of SAF is that they are ‘drop-in’ fuels -meaning they can be used in the same equipment and infrastructure (engines, pipelines, distribution networks, etc.) as conventional jet-fuel, without any modifications.
In its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents about 83% of total air traffic (including local airlines Airlink, Safair and South African Airways), sees SAF mitigating 65% of the industry emissions in 2050. Regulatory support for SAF is also growing worldwide. For example, the European Union has set SAF blending mandates of 5% and 63% by 2030 and 2050 respectively.
SA is well positioned to take advantage of the growing SAF momentum and build a domestic SAF sector due to local competitive advantages such as an excellent resource base for SAF production and experience with some promising SAF production technologies (Sasol & PetroSA’s Fischer-Tropsch processes).
WWF South Africa recently published a blueprint for producing SAF locally using various sustainable feedstocks, including woody invasive alien plants (IAPs), which are the largest sustainable biomass resource in the country (217 million dry tonnes). The introduction of IAPs such as wattle, pine, and eucalyptus, has led to the unhealthy conversion of landscapes from climate-adapted, species-rich indigenous vegetation to single-species stands of water-thirsty invasive trees. This threatens biodiversity, water security, the productive use of land and the ecological functioning of natural systems. While clearing of IAPs is already underway, it’s mostly small-scale and most of the cleared biomass is left in the field without value addition, posing a fire risk. Using IAPs for SAF production would result in large-scale clearing activities, with multiple ecological benefits and the creation of thousands of jobs in alien-clearing, as well as in biomass transport.
WWF’s blueprint report shows that SA has the immediate technical potential to produce 3,2 billion litres of cost-competitive SAF annually, following the strictest sustainability requirements, at a once-off capital investment of approximately US$12 billion. Introducing green hydrogen into the SAF manufacturing process can extend this potential to 4,5 billion litres per year. This is enough to replace the use of conventional jet-fuel domestically up to a maximum blending threshold of 1,2 billion litres per annum, while also providing 2 to 3,3 billion litres for export.
The highest achievable localisation of all promising SAF production pathways would provide 40 000 direct and 48 000 indirect jobs during the construction phase, and 46 500 direct and 3 600 indirect jobs over the 20-year operational period. Additionally, reducing jet-fuel imports by developing a domestic SAF industry can improve SA’s balance of trade by US$7,9 billion per annum. Full export of all SAF would further improve the balance of trade, generating about US$10,6 billion per annum from sales at the minimum sale price.
Investment in local SAF production is key to decarbonising SA’s aviation industry and will have several ecological benefits. Furthermore, a domestic SAF sector could be a pillar of SA’s low-carbon economy, playing an important role in the just transition process, and helping to address the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty, and inequality.