As the United Nations COP26 climate change conference in Scotland focused its efforts on transportation today, the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance (SABA) announced the formation of an industry user group to promote investment in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and increase its acceptance.
SABA, which was launched earlier this year, is a joint initiative by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and forward-looking energy nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). Its new Aviators Group includes founding members Amazon Air, Alaska Airlines, JetBlue, and United Airlines.
At the Glasgow conference, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg highlighted the release of the government's aviation climate action plan, which, for the first time, sets out the goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. aviation sector by 2050.
While keynoting today’s transportation day event at the U.S. Center Pavilion, Buttigieg told the audience that SABA's advocacy comes at a crucial juncture. “Right now, 11 percent of U.S. transportation sector emissions are coming from aviation,” he said, adding that that share will grow over the coming decades. “I think it’s never been more urgent for us to demonstrate our capacity, in our political and economic systems that have been fraying at the seams, to actually deliver change on an accelerated basis." Buttigieg challenged SABA to spur the pace of uptake of SAF and arrive at next year’s conference loaded with significant new offtake agreements from its membership.
Globally, air travel accounts for around 2.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, a figure that is expected to rise, as jet fuel use is expected to double from pre-pandemic levels by 2050. SAF, which is produced from renewable sources or waste feedstocks, can in its neat form reduce lifecycle carbon emissions by 80 percent, yet today it represents less than 0.1 percent of the aviation fuel consumed. SABA is working with stakeholders such as academic experts, fuel producers, and airlines to establish a sustainability framework that will ensure SAF contributes to “credible” emissions reductions and without any unintended environmental or social problems.
“We are excited to join SABA as a founding member of the Aviators Group to partner, advise, and learn from leading SAF experts RMI and EDF, tackling head-on key challenges that will hopefully enable rapid scale-up of an SAF industry,” said JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes. He noted that while SAF’s potential to reduce air travel emissions has been well documented, “it has long suffered from supply and cost challenges that keep overall usage low.”
In a panel discussion following Secretary Buttigieg’s comments, Diana Birkett Rakow, Alaska Airlines v-p of public affairs and sustainability, described SAF as a “critical unlock” for medium-range and long-haul flying. “We all need it, so we all have to make sure that it is available," she said. "It’s not just a demand issue or a supply issue. We have to work on both at once.” She added that “we’re really thrilled to create this new Aviators Group inside SABA to bring an operators' perspective to the conversation as the users of the fuel, to work with the SABA members to make sure that the fuel is getting purchased, getting into our engines, and flying people.”
SABA’s founding customer group includes Bank of America, Boeing, Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, JPMorgan Chase, McKinsey & Company, Microsoft, Netflix, Salesforce, and its newest member Meta (formerly Facebook). EDF and RMI also unveiled SABA’s formal membership structure, opening its rolls to interested public and private organizations worldwide.
“With SABA membership comes transparency, accountability, and confidence to prove that members are living up to their climate commitments,” explained Bryan Fisher, managing director of RMI’s climate-aligned industry program.
As part of that transparency, SABA’s membership is backing the establishment of a rigorous system for tracking environmental credits through so-called book and claim programs that allow customers to purchase SAF and claim its benefits, even though the SAF itself may be dispensed hundreds or even thousands of miles away in a different aircraft.