A new report lays out significant challenges facing the global airline industry’s plan to expand its use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), while predicting wider SAF use will inflate airfares.

The 10 October report from financial research firm Morningstar comes as the airline industry leans heavily on SAF as a prime means of reducing carbon emissions.

“The price of SAF is currently 2x to 9x more expensive than conventional jet fuel,” Morningstar says. “While the tax credits for SAF may help lower the cost of SAF in the future, the significant price premium of SAF remains a significant hurdle for the industry.”

neste sAF

Source: Neste

Fuel company Neste has delivered sustainable aviation fuel to US airports

The report says airlines cannot meet their SAF-usage goals by depending on the cheapest form of SAF – biofuel. Due to limited biofuel availability, airlines will need to turn to significantly more expensive types of SAF, including fuel made through novel in-development methods.

Still, Morningstar notes, as have others, that airlines have few means other than use of SAF to reduce carbon emissions. The report says SAF remains “the most-feasible solution”.

The airline industry has leaned hard into SAF despite unsettled questions about actual carbon-reduction benefits and broader concerns, such as those related to converting land into farms for growing the “feedstock” needed for biofuel production.

Biofuel, made from biomass like plant oil, is only one type of SAF. The aerospace industry has also promoted SAF produced using municipal waste or forest residue, or through “power to liquid”, a process involving combining hydrogen with carbon, such as carbon collected through extraction from air. IATA has said SAF can reduce emissions by 80%, though numerous reports have concluded benefits will be less than that estimate. 

A 2023 report from The Royal Society said biofuels do reduce emissions, but that many estimates do not account for “land use changes”. Accounting for those changes “significantly” impacts estimated carbon output, and “few hit the renewable energy directive target”.

Numerous airlines have signed a goal for SAF to account for 10% of their fuel by 2030. The administration of US president Joe Biden has aimed for 11.4 billion litres (3 billion gallons) of SAF to be produced in the USA by 2030, while EU mandates will require 6.5 million litres annually in the same year, Morningstar notes.

But time is running out, and SAF production remains minuscule.

“There are less than eight years left to meet the 2030 goal… For these regions, the required SAF to achieve the 2030 targets represent nearly 60 times the estimated global SAF production in 2022,” Morningstar says.

It estimates global SAF production hit 300 million litres in 2022, while the US Government Accountability Office has pegged US SAF production in 2022 at 59.8 million litres.

Morningstar says SAF availability is challenged by competition for renewable fuels from other industries. It says “renewable diesel” costs about the same as traditional diesel, making it more economically practical than SAF to produce.

Of SAF types, biofuel is cheapest but also the “least scalable” due to limited feedstock, Morningstar says.

The Royal Society estimates at least half of all UK agricultural land would be needed to grow enough feedstock to support all of the UK’s jet fuel requirement.

Power-to-liquid fuel has no such feedstock limitations, but the technology remains in “nascent stages” and “cost of production is very high”, Morningstar says.

That means airlines will likely need to rely on other SAF types, which will still cost 3-4.5 times more than traditional jet fuel.

Higher airfares may result.

“We believe the fuel cost for airlines is likely to increase gradually over the coming years as the industry transitions towards SAF, and the cost of air travel is likely to increase as the industry passes on higher costs,” Morningstar says.

In a September report, LEK Consulting estimated that the cost of airlines meeting their SAF targets would drive up airfares 18% by 2050.