• How sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) can reduce tourism’s carbon footprint
  • What biofuel sources can be used to produce SAF?
  • And what Australian airlines are doing to make travel sustainable


The tourism sector is booming again with Qantas (ASX:QAN) having just delivered a record $2.4bn profit, and Flight Centre (ASX:FLT) announcing a swing from loss to profit.

But as more and more people travel each year, the sector’s carbon footprint is only going to grow bigger.

Tourism is highly vulnerable to climate change but at the same time, contributes 11% to the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) annually.

According to the latest research, CO2 emissions from tourism are forecasted to increase by 25% to 2030, and double in 2050. By then, planet Earth will have warmed 1.5C above preindustrial times.

So how can tourism fix its emissions problem?

Some say sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is the answer.

SAF is produced from sustainable feedstocks and is very similar in its chemistry to traditional fossil jet fuel.

Some typical feedstocks used are cooking oil and non-palm waste oils from animals or plants; solid waste from homes and businesses, such as packaging, paper, textiles, and food scraps that would otherwise go to landfill or incineration.

Other potential sources include forestry waste, such as waste wood, and energy crops, including fast growing plants and algae.


Blended with jet fuel

A report from global giant BP suggests that SAF could reduce up to 80% in carbon emissions over the lifecycle of the fuel, compared to traditional jet fuel it replaces.

But this depends on the sustainable feedstock used, production method and the supply chain to the airport.

BP says SAF can be blended at up to 50% with traditional jet fuel, which could then be re-certified as Jet A or Jet A-1 fuel.

This blend can be handled in the same way as a traditional jet fuel, so no changes are required in the fuelling infrastructure for an aircraft wanting to use SAF.

“In 2016, we were the first operator to commence commercial supply of SAF through an existing hydrant fuelling system, at Norway’s Oslo Airport,” noted BP.


What biofuels can be used and how farmers can benefit

At the moment, production of SAF is limited as the higher cost for SAF is preventing wider uptake.

The US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) says an estimated 1 billion dry tonnes of biomass can be collected sustainably each year in the United States – enough to produce 50–60 billion gallons of low-carbon biofuels.

These resources include:

  • Corn grain
  • Oil seeds
  • Algae
  • Other fats, oils, and greases
  • Agricultural residues
  • Forestry residues
  • Wood mill waste
  • Municipal solid waste streams
  • Wet wastes (manures, wastewater treatment sludge)
  • Dedicated energy crops.

The EERE also says producing SAF from renewable and waste resources can create new economic opportunities for farmers.

For example, by growing biomass crops for SAF production, farmers can earn more money during off seasons by providing feedstocks to this new market.

By doing this, they are also securing benefits for their farms like reducing nutrient losses and improving soil quality.


Australia’s SAF Roadmap

In Australia, the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Roadmap builds consensus on developing the local SAF industry, identifying opportunities to scale production using Australian feedstocks.

The Roadmap is part of the critical work CSIRO undertook with its long term partner, Boeing Australia, to develop a local SAF industry.

According to the Roadmap, Australia is in prime position to produce and scale SAF feedstocks and contribute to the SAF industry in the Asia Pacific region.

This is because we already produce significant quantities of feedstocks that are exported for biofuel production, making us well-positioned to expand into a diversified portfolio of sustainable feedstock sources.

But the CSIRO acknowledged the transition to sustainable fuel is complex, requiring active participation from a wide range of suppliers and stakeholders.

“It needs multiple sources of biomass across different regions and seasons. This biomass must then be processed into suitable feedstock for the industry,” noted Kirsten Rose, acting chief executive of the CSIRO.

“The transition will require large quantities of green hydrogen both to process biomass feedstocks, and as a feedstock itself in the longer term. This will in turn require large amounts of supporting renewable energy.”


Sustainable fuel is getting lots of interest

In December 2021, Qantas became the first Australian airline to purchase SAF on an ongoing basis, which is being delivered at London Heathrow Airport.

Since then, Qantas has acquired around 4 million litres of SAF at the airport, representing approximately 7,200t of abated CO2e.

The airline says the SAF represents (by volume) up to 15% of its annual fuel needs out of London Heathrow Airport, reducing carbon emissions by up to 10% on this route, based on 2019 volumes.

“We’ll continue to look for opportunities to purchase SAF from international ports, particularly in the United States, to support our target of 10% SAF in our overall fuel mix by 2030,” said a Qantas release.

In July, ARENA (the Australian Renewable Energy Agency) launched a funding round to seek proposals from local companies to develop the production of renewable feedstocks in Australia.

The initiative will provide up to $30 million support for engineering feasibility and project development activities, or funding for pilot-scale and pre-commercial demonstrations.

“With abundant agriculture, waste and residue resources, Australia has the potential to support a thriving domestic biofuel industry,” said ARENA’s CEO, Darren Miller.


But does SAF really make aviation greener?

Compared to traditional fuel jet, SAF have much less reduced emissions (around 80%) over its life cycle.

The argument is that carbon dioxide absorbed by plants during the growth of biomass is roughly equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide produced when the fuel is burned in a combustion engine.

The carbon produced by the engine is simply returned to the atmosphere, so in theory, this would allow the SAF to be near carbon-neutral over its life cycle.

According to BP, SAF will play a really important role in meeting the aviation industry’s carbon reduction targets, however, we need to use all the options to reduce carbon that we have available.

“There are several broad opportunities for carbon reduction across the industry right now, such as more efficient aircraft design, smarter operations and the development of future technologies like electrification.”


Other ASX-listed airlines with sustainability initiatives


Regional Express Holdings (ASX:REX)

In July last year, REX secured a 20% stake in electric aviation start-up, Dovetail.

Rex operates a fleet of Saab 340 turboprop aircrafts, which it hopes to retrofit with Dovetail’s battery-powered electric propulsion systems.

While Rex focuses on electrified aircrafts, larger players like Qantas and Virgin prefer to support the development of SAF.


Webjet (ASX:WEB)

From March this year, customers are able to offset their emissions for hotel and package bookings made on Webjet.

Webjet calculates the greenhouse gas emissions using TEM’s BlueHalo technology associated with the flight such as aircraft type, distance travelled and litres of fuel used.

These offsets are calculated on a per-seat basis, where customers only offset the amount of emissions attributable to their specific seat on the flight.

Emissions associated with each room night spent in the accommodation is also calculated, taking into account the hotel location, star rating, and room size (m2).