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Coming soon to an airport near you: Sustainable aviation fuel certificates

Airplane taxiing on runway
Jaromir Chalabala

A new certificate announced last week eventually will allow air travelers to purchase emissions reductions on their flight through the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) — fuel made from biogenic feedstocks such as waste cooking oil, agricultural residues and municipal waste. 

The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Certificate (SAFc) system works within standard "book and claim" processes, which drive demand for SAF via the sale and purchase of certificates or credits. The sale will allow the actual fuel to be delivered to the airport from the closest production plant, supporting a net-zero pathway for aviation. The certificate was created by Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST), an initiative led by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in collaboration with RMI and the Energy Transitions Commission. PwC Netherlands played a role in authoring the SAF certificate framework. 

I was able to get on the phone with Adam Klauber of RMI, lead author of the SAF certificate report. Klauber heads the institute’s sustainable aviation team, nestled within the climate intelligence group, which aims to create sustainable or climate products that address some of the harder-to-abate industries. The team leverages market-based approaches to scale aviation carbon reduction, including pioneering new ways for airports to finance sustainable jet fuel. 

Klauber let me in on some key things to know about this new certificate program:

  • The conceptual development began at San Francisco International Airport. RMI worked with SFO to help it find a way to support SAF use. This led to a feasibility report that looked at how to get SAF to the airport and how to pay for it. SFO convened quarterly industry collaborations and took a direct role in advancing policy work on a state, national and federal level. From there, the WEF and CST program worked with RMI to further flesh out the initial concept of a SAFc. 
  • The program’s rollout has just begun. Phase one is complete: the report. Phase two is the kickoff — officially happening this week (stay tuned!) — which includes guidance on how to avoid Scope 3 double counting. Guidance also will include how the SAFc will work in every global jurisdiction where there are either subsidies for civil aviation fuels or regulations for aviation emissions. For example, it will explain how the SAFc will be compatible with California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard. The goal is to publish the implementation guidance before COP26, but the full guide won’t be out until January. 
  • The way it works is a corporate buyer covers the premium associated with the SAF, and it receives the exclusive rights to the Scope 3 benefits (value chain emissions outside of direct operations, including emissions from suppliers, employees and product users), so the indirect emissions reductions go to the corporate payer who buys the SAFc. The airline's emissions go down as well, which counts towards its Scope 1 (direct from sources owned or controlled by a company) emissions reductions.
  • Companies can start using the SAFc system immediately. The Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA) will begin piloting the SAF certificate in a number of ways by the end of this year. The nine companies so far that have joined — including Netflix, JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte, Microsoft, Boeing, Boston Consulting Group and Salesforce — will be pioneers of the SAF certificate. They will be sharing lessons learned and insights that will go into a future guide for its use. A tracking and traceability system, including a registry where the claims will be retired, will be piloted over this fall. The goal is that by 2022, the full registry will be in place, facilitating transactions and building trust with buyers.
  • They’re working on building recognition within the Greenhouse Gas Protocol as a mitigation measure. Their goal is to create something like the energy attributes certificate or the broader category of RECs (renewable energy certificates) for the SAFc. When companies can't reduce emissions otherwise, they'll buy a SAFc, which will be viewed and widely accepted by all parties that matter as an effective way to take action on climate change. 
  • The certificate addresses the disparity between the actual and the virtual transfer of sustainable aviation fuel as a carbon mitigation measure. "Science Based Targets already recognizes sustainable aviation fuel as a mitigation measure, [so] the question that's still outstanding is how can this certificate, the virtual transfer, gain the same level of acceptability as the actual fuel transfer?" said Klauber.

Clearly, it’s a vital pursuit in the adoption of sustainable fuels, and we will be eagerly following its development. 

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