Africa’s first sustainable aviation biofuel project gets underway as Boeing and South African Airways ink agreement

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Boeing and South African Airways (SAA) are to collaborate on developing and implementing a sustainable aviation biofuel supply chain in Southern Africa, a first such project for the continent. The two partners say the project is part of broader efforts to support environmental sustainability for the airline’s operations and in addition to advancing South Africa’s social and economic development. Particular feedstocks have yet to be identified but they must be sustainable and not compete with food crops, said Ian Cruickshank, SAA’s Head of Group Environmental Affairs. Only waste streams from various crops and processes are currently being considered although numerous streams have been identified for further exploration. The use of sustainable aviation biofuels has been identified as a priority by the South African government in efforts to develop a green economy and reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

“South African Airways is taking the lead in Africa on sustainable aviation fuels and, by setting a best practice example, can positively shape aviation biofuel efforts in the region,” said Cruickshank. He added the collaboration would focus on South Africa initially but the programme would likely be expanded to other parts of Southern Africa, “always bearing in mind the availability of feedstocks that meet sustainability criteria.”

Boeing and SAA believe new developments in technology will enable the conversion of biomass into jet fuel in a more sustainable manner without competing with other sectors for food and water resources. They are partnering with World Wildlife Fund–South Africa, which will monitor and ensure compliance to sustainability principles and lead, they say, to genuine carbon reductions.

Boeing is already working with stakeholders in other countries, including China, Australia, Brazil and the United States, to develop road maps for biofuel supply chains.

“Sustainable aviation biofuel will play a central role in reducing commercial aviation’s carbon emissions over the long term, and we see tremendous potential for these fuels in Africa,” said Julie Felgar, Managing Director of Environmental Strategy and Integration for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “Boeing and South African Airways are committed to investigating feedstocks and pathways that comply with strict sustainability guidelines and can have a positive impact on South Africa’s development.”

Last year, the South African government announced it was planning a strategy to develop a home-grown aviation biofuels industry to support the state-owned SAA (see article). Aware of the country’s fast-growing carbon footprint – South Africa is ranked within the world’s top 30 greenhouse gas emitters – and the vulnerability of the airline to potential carbon emissions regulatory regimes, the Department of Public Enterprises set up a working group to specifically develop a strategy for meeting aviation biofuel requirements.

Under the Department’s policy guidance, said SAA, the airline has been able to accelerate its Sustainable Alternative Fuel Programme to a robust multi-stakeholder evaluation stage following rigorous feedstock pathway and best practice research. The programme is aligned to the National Climate Change Response White Paper and Green Economy intentions of South Africa.

The aim, Cruickshank told GreenAir, is for 50% of SAA’s fuel uplifted at Johannesburg, at least, to be sustainable aviation fuel by 2023.

“By working with Boeing’s sustainable aviation biofuel team, which has a history of successful partnerships to move lower-carbon biofuels closer to commercialisation, we will apply the best global technology to meet the unique conditions of Southern Africa, diversify our energy sources and create new opportunities for the people of South Africa,” reported Cruickshank, who is a member of the Environment Committee of IATA and the Chairman of the IATA Environment Assessment Working Group.

SAA said it is in the process of joining several industry organisations that ensure sustainability through strict global standards.

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