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Biden looks to lower the carbon footprint of business travel

As the aviation industry lobbies for sustainable jet fuel, new tax breaks could help lower the carbon footprint of business travel.

Illustration of a jet's shadow over a field sunflowers.

Illustration of a jet's shadow over a field sunflowers. Credit: Shutterstock/Scharfsinn

U.S. airlines use sustainable fuel in less than 0.1 percent of flights. Yet the government wants 10 percent of the industry to run on sustainable fuel by 2030, and to reach 100 percent by 2050.

The scale of the challenge is massive: United Airlines used 7 million gallons of sustainable fuel last year, according to company spokesman Sam Coleman. "That was a threefold increase from the year before, which is great, except that United Airlines burns between 3 and 4 billion — with a B — gallons of fuel every year."

Air travel creates 2 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions and 12 percent of transportation emissions, according to the Department of Energy. There will be a projected 40.1 million flights in 2024, up from 36.8 million the year before.

The carbon footprint of business travel could get lower

Put simply, air travel simply isn’t anywhere close to being sustainable.

Yet chief sustainability officers — looking to reduce the carbon footprint of their business travel operations — would dearly love it to be.

The Biden administration sought to change that April 30 when it announced that producers of corn- and soy-based jet fuel who use "climate-smart" farming practices will be eligible for new tax credits. 

The administration’s guidance, which isn’t final, could help other businesses reduce the carbon footprint of their employees’ travel. Salesforce, for one, plans to buy sustainable fuel certificates for 5 percent of its Scope 3 emissions for air travel.

The move came after the launch April 29 of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Coalition (SAFC), a lobby group of 40 aviation businesses including American Airlines and United Airlines. The group will push for increased investment in sustainable fuel.

SAF makes up more than two-thirds of the emissions reductions needed by International Air Transport Association members to reach net zero carbon by 2050. Credit: IATA

SAF makes up more than two-thirds of the emissions reductions needed by International Air Transport Association members to reach net zero carbon by 2050. Credit: IATA

"Sustainable" is a relative term when it comes to jet fuel. It is typically blended with regular jet fuel in a ratio of between 10 to 50 percent. It can reduce carbon emissions by up to 85 percent over its lifecycle, according to Boeing Aerospace, even though by its nature it still involves burning fossil fuel and producing CO2.

Sustainable jet fuel is expensive

Sustainable fuel costs two to four times more than fossil fuel. That "green premium" hampers adoption, and demand outstrips the supply, according to the International Air Transport Association.

That’s where the new government subsidies come in. Producers using corn for ethanol or soy for biodiesel can now qualify for tax credits of between $1.25 to $1.75 per gallon of fuel produced. They must be able to demonstrate that they used regenerative agriculture: cover crops, energy-efficient fertilizer and did not till their soil to make the fuel.

Critics want crops for food, not fuel

The cost — and the continued use of petroleum — are why many in the airline industry regard crop-based fuel as a "bridge" that will eventually lead to "third-generation fuels" from hydrogen and carbon capture.

"While some may view this announcement as being too stringent or too lenient for crop-based fuels, we believe that it strikes the right balance between getting the science right and incentivizing lower carbon fuel production with the feedstocks and production processes that we have available today," said John Hebert, senior policy adviser for transportation at think tank Third Way.

Environmental groups expressed wariness over the plan to grow crops for fuel instead of food. "U.S. airlines should align with their European counterparts in demanding sustainable aviation fuel made from feedstocks that don’t compete with food production," Dan Lashof, World Resources Institute director, told GreenBiz.

That’s not part of the administration’s vision, however. It’s all about jet fuel: The new tax breaks are "a big step forward for American farmers, for American innovation, for American jobs and America's ability to cut carbon pollution for our transportation sector and to protect our planet," said John Podesta, the senior clean energy advisor to Biden who oversees spending under the Inflation Reduction Act, at a press event Monday.

New laws require sustainable fuel

But governments the world over seem intent on forcing a market for sustainable fuel into existence. Among them:

"SAF will enhance domestic energy security, create new markets for American farmers, reduce aviation emissions and drive next-generation technology development," said Alison Graab, executive director of the SAF Coalition and a transport industry lobbyist.

[Continue the conversation on climate policy at Circularity 24 (May 22-24, Chicago), the leading conference for professionals building the circular economy.]

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