Singapore Air Show

Lack of Mandates Doesn’t Deter Asian Airlines’ Sustainability Push

 - February 14, 2022, 8:15 PM
Malaysia Airlines intends to switch to regular use of SAF by 2025. (Photo: Martijn Gijsbertsen)

An increasing number of airlines in Asia-Pacific have committed to adopting environmental sustainability targets and practices, even though the urgency to decarbonize might not match that of European carriers. In Europe, national and EU governments have moved to curtail short-haul flights, impose sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) blending mandates, and impose a tax on aviation fuel as part of the so-called Green Deal.  The European Green Deal sets the blueprint for the EU to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 and cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.

“Europe is the leader of the pack in terms of going to net-zero by 2050. Some countries here in Asia such as Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and South Korea have committed to going to net-zero by 2050, but the two largest countries are somewhat behind,” noted Joshua Ng, director at Alton Aviation Consultancy in Singapore.  China has said it targets reaching carbon neutrality by 2060 while India has pushed the goal even further, to 2070. “We see a divergence in terms of the net-zero commitment across the region,” Ng told AIN, adding that in the handful of Asia-Pacific countries that have committed to that goal, the commitment involves a mainly “holistic push” to decarbonize the economy and life.

“Asia being the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic has not yet had the time to formulate concrete decarbonization policies,” remarked Umang Gupta, Alton’s airline practice lead. In Europe, some governments included CO2 reduction requirements in their bailouts of airlines, and, in the U.S., the sustainability drive does not necessarily stem from regulation. “[U.S.] airlines see the writing on the wall due to pressure from business customers and big shareholders that increasingly set their own sustainability goals,” said Gupta.

Nevertheless, Asia-Pacific carriers have left little doubt of their commitment and focus on environmental sustainability just as profoundly as their European or U.S. counterparts, stressed Philip Goh, International Air Transport Association’s regional vice president for Asia-Pacific. “While it is true that many societies in the region are probably not as advanced in their sustainability focus as Western societies, airlines in Asia-Pacific recognize the seriousness of sustainability as a global issue, and that they have a responsibility to contribute to reduction in the industry’s carbon emissions,” he told AIN in an interview just ahead of the Singapore Airshow.  “Many Asia-Pacific airlines are at the forefront of sustainability awareness and concerted actions.”

In a move marking Asian carriers’ growing commitment to decarbonize flying, Qantas Airways secured a contract with Air BP for the purchase of 10 million liters of SAF for its services departing from London Heathrow Airport in 2022 with an option to purchase up to another 10 million liters in 2023 and 2024. The amount represents up to 15 percent of Qantas’s annual fuel use out of London, according to the airline. While Qantas and wholly-owned low-cost subsidiary Jetstar have flown several demonstration flights using SAF—including a flight across the Pacific in 2018 powered by biofuel derived from mustard seeds—the Qantas contract marks the first time an Australian airline will buy SAF on an ongoing basis. In fact, Qantas has started discussions about accessing SAF at its other overseas gateways. “We know that climate change is incredibly important for our customers, employees, and investors and it is a major focus for the national carrier as we come out of a difficult couple of years,” said Qantas Group chief sustainability officer Andrew Parker.

Qantas currently operates one of the largest carbon offset programs in the aviation industry, and about 10 percent of its customers that book flights on choose to offset their flights.

The Qantas Group in 2019 pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and committed to investing A$50 million ($35.7 million) over the next decade to develop a viable SAF industry within Australia. “Given the importance of aviation to Australia and the distances we travel, there’s a huge opportunity to build a local SAF industry here,” asserted Parker. Qantas wants between four and six facilities in Australia to start producing SAF by the middle of this decade.

Fellow Asia-Pacific carrier Malaysia Airlines intends to switch to regular use of SAF by 2025 and inked a wider cooperation agreement with oil and gas company Petronas that calls for the provision of SAF at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and the application of innovative technologies for carbon reduction, carbon offset, and waste management, as well as research and development for low carbon applications and carbon capture. The national carrier of Malaysia operated its first-ever flight using SAF in December. The Malaysian Airlines Airbus A330-200 burned a blend of conventional fossil-based Jet-A and about 38 percent SAF, produced by Finland’s Neste, on a 12-hour flight from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport Schiphol to Kuala Lumpur. “With the completion of this significant first step, we are committed to working towards having a viable SAF supply chain here in Malaysia and we believe the only way we could reach this goal is through strategic collaboration and support from our stakeholders,” commented Malaysian Airlines Group CEO Izham Ismail.

SAF Needs a Massive Ramp Up

“There is an increased thinking in Asia on how to grow SAF supply, but the key message is that SAF supply will remain constrained for many years to come,” said Ng. IATA’s Goh expressed a similar concern that the production capacity in Asia-Pacific remains far from sufficient to support what the industry needs to deliver its Net Zero 2050 commitment. “In other words, SAF needs a massive ramp-up in the region,” he warned.

In its Waypoint 2050 position paper, released in October 2021, the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) projected that airlines worldwide will need around 445 million tonnes (555 billion liters) of SAF in 2050—assuming a 100 percent emission reduction factor and an “aggressive” SAF deployment. Aviation demand in Asia-Pacific would account for about 40 percent. The Waypoint 2050 analysis estimates that APAC jointly will require between 1,940 and 2,661 facilities to produce enough SAF to achieve the climate targets of the aviation industry in the region. Globally, that number stands at between 5,000 and 7,000 SAF facilities.

The Japanese government has outlined policies to establish a SAF production and supply system at domestic airports in 2030, a move strongly supported by Japan’s two leading airline groups, ANA Holdings and Japan Airlines, which now rely on imported SAF. “If Japan’s airports can achieve a stable supply of domestically produced SAF at internationally competitive prices, the international airports in Japan will become more competitive, which will lead to the establishment of a stable international aviation network based in Japan,” the airlines noted in a joint report titled “Achieving a Carbon Neutral Future in Aviation by 2050,” published last October.  ANA and JAL estimate that achieving net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 for domestic and international flights by Japanese airlines and for foreign airlines operating in Japan will require some 23 billion liters of SAF.

Japan has set no biofuel mandate for either domestic or international flights, but both airlines have used SAF to power flights voluntarily. In 2019, ANA reached an agreement with LanzaTech for the future purchase of SAF and in 2020 signed a memorandum of understanding with Neste to create a medium- to long-term strategic alliance. Last year, the group procured SAF from Neste for flights departing from Haneda and Narita.

The JAL Group is also actively investing in SAF. In September 2018, the company acquired a stake in Fulcrum BioEnergy, located in California, marking the first investment by a Japanese firm in a SAF manufacturing business. The deal also included a SAF offtake agreement, enabling JAL to refuel its aircraft with Fulcrum’s drop-in biofuel for flights departing from North America. On February 4, 2021, JL319 took off from Tokyo Haneda bound for Fukuoka, using SAF produced with cotton obtained from donated clothing as feedstock.

One of the most high-profile projects to boost SAF production in the region is taking place in Singapore, where Neste has committed to invest €1.4 billion ($1.6 billion) to extend its renewable product overall capacity by up to 1.3 million tonnes a year. The Finnish company wants to start the new production line during the first half of 2023.

The Neste investment coincides with a 12-month project initiated by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) in cooperation with Singapore Airlines and investment firm Temasek to test the use of SAF at Changi Airport. The pilot project, due to take place this year, marks a “significant” step to operationally validate SAF integration options in Singapore, said CAAS director-general Han Kok Juan. It will incorporate the blending of neat SAF in local facilities, certification of blended SAF, and delivery to Changi Airport. “[The pilot] will provide insights on end-to-end cost components, potential pricing structures for cost recovery, and support future policy considerations for SAF deployment,” he said. “Sustainability will be a key priority of the aviation sector as it recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic and SAF will be a critical enabler in the sector’s decarbonization efforts.”

Innovative Propulsion Technologies

The CAAS in November last year also signed an MOU with Airbus to launch a technical feasibility study of an airport hydrogen hub to support future hydrogen-powered aircraft operations. Infrastructure requirements include the production, storage, and distribution of hydrogen, aircraft ground services, logistical equipment, and refueling systems.

The Singapore government is not alone in the region in considering innovative technologies to power aircraft, remarked Goh. “Air New Zealand has detailed a fleet renewal plan that switches to electric or hydrogen propulsion aircraft for its regional flights by 2030,” he noted.

As part of its quest for ideas on how to accelerate and deploy propulsion innovations such as hybrid, hydrogen, or electric technologies for its new aircraft, Air New Zealand in December released a product requirements document. The PRD, Air New Zealand's head of fleet strategy Baden Smith explained, allows the airline to share its vision for zero emissions aircraft deployment and current and future aircraft developers to recognize the country’s and Air New Zealand's ambition to make “this a reality as soon as possible.”