The future of air cargo depends upon sustainable practices. Aviation accounts for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions – a contribution growing faster from air transportation than from motor carriers or railways. The focus on aviation’s contribution to global greenhouse gasses has led to increased public scrutiny and pressure on the air cargo sector to reduce its carbon footprint. Companies in airfreight shipping are adopting greener operations and seeking innovative solutions like Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) to reduce their environmental impact.

Combating climate change is critical.

-International Air Transport Association (IATA)

Sustainability initiatives and action to fight climate change is underway by leaders in the air cargo industry. Key strategies include:

  • Reduction of fuel and energy waste
  • Exploration of alternative fuels
  • Investment in lightweight materials
  • Advancement of new shipping technologies
  • Automation of processes 

While the charge to reduce CO2 emissions with alternative fuels has been set forth, the journey towards achieving this goal is not an easy task, especially for an industry at work 24/7 with cargo operations that never cease. The expectation in air cargo for precision, safety, and efficiency will not let up on the path to sustainability. 

Coordinated efforts between those in tech innovation, the commercial sector, and experts in policy-making are paramount. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recognizes one strategic initiative where collaborative efforts between cargo stakeholders is well underway:  Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). In this post, we explore SAF as a key initiative for more sustainable, environmentally-conscious air shipping.

What is Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)?

Sustainable Aviation Fuel, or SAF, is a type of alternative fuel that reduces carbon emissions. It can be produced from a variety of non-petroleum sources, including:

  • Municipal solid waste (the food and yard portion)
  • Fats, greases, and oils 
  • Woody biomass, and more

Stakeholders agree that SAF is the most plausible way to achieve NetZero (carbon) by 2050 because it is chemically the same as conventional jet fuel, and, therefore, it’s feasible to integrate into current air shipping infrastructure.

Airplane parked and getting refueled

What are the Benefits of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)?

The benefits to renewable hydrocarbon fuel are numerous, and the air cargo industry is no exception. The Department of Energy describes three specific benefits to SAF:

  • Compatibility with Standard Jet Engine and Infrastructure —”SAF blended with conventional Jet A can be used in existing aircraft and infrastructure.”
  • Fewer CO2 Emissions—”Compared with conventional jet fuel, 100% SAF has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 94% depending on feedstock and technology pathway.”
  • Greater Production and Implementation Flexibility—”SAF is a replacement for conventional jet fuel, allowing for multiple products from various feedstocks and production technologies.”

[Source: U.S. Department of Energy, Sustainable Aviation Fuel]

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) – The Most Effective Way to Lower Carbon Emissions

Airfreight stakeholders acknowledge that the utilization of Sustainable Aviation Fuel is the most effective way to lower carbon emissions, which is notably the largest source of pollution in aviation. However, SAF currently only accounts for less than 1% of fuel used on commercial and cargo airplanes, according to a Jan. 10 report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). In short, Sustainable Aviation Fuel is still expensive to produce and, therefore, scarce. 

[Source: AirCargo Next, Fueling Up: SAF access makes air cargo greener]

We estimate that Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) could contribute around 65% of the reduction in emissions needed by aviation to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050.

-IATA

Integrating Renewable Energy Through SAF

Most major cargo airlines have already added SAF as a primary component to their sustainability program. There’s a wealth of published statements about Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) as part of airline sustainability initiatives. Delta Cargo states that “Jet fuel is the No. 1 contributor to Delta’s carbon footprint, so Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is the best way to make a direct impact on aviation emissions. Bio-based jet fuel production is a renewable process, and currently SAF can reduce life cycle emissions up to 80% compared to fossil fuel” [Source: Delta, Cargo SAF Program]. Similar statements are readily accessible by other domestic airlines like United, Hawaiian, American, and Southwest.

Matt Petot of CargoAi at AirCargo 2024

At the AirCargo Conference 2024 in Louisville Kentucky, Founder & CEO of CargoAi’s Matt Petot joined the expert panel, Emerging Technologies in Air Freight Forwarding and Trucking, to address the role of innovation and technology in advancing the freight transportation industry. One example is the rise in cargo booking platforms that have emerged for freight forwarders and motor carriers to monitor carbon emissions and SAF on cargo flights. Petot’s CargoAi introduced its Cargo2ZERO product that features a CO2 emissions dashboard and visibility into the direct purchase of SAF. It’s platforms like this one that allow for the intersection of demand and innovation to play. Leveraging the full value of SAF will truly require innovation and collaboration across all modes in the cargo industry. 

Air Cargo and Sustainability: What Lies Ahead?

The Department of Energy’s Sustainable Aviation Fuel: Review of Technical Pathways Report from 2020 outlined key challenges the aviation industry faces when considering successful implementation of SAF. 

  • The large and growing size of the jet fuel market
  • The relatively high cost of SAF as compared to petroleum-based Jet A fuel
  • The burden on airlines to implement SAF in an emission-constrained future with lack of other viable alternatives

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) analyzed two different cost scenarios of adopting Sustainable Aviation Fuel from 2025 – 2050, which focused on different SAF blends. According to PwC, the findings are “highly encouraging for the future of SAF, indicating a cost markup that’s manageable for both airlines and their customers. Add in the ongoing tightening of regulatory requirements and customers’ increasing willingness to pay extra for sustainability, and the results are more promising still” [Source: PwC, Sustainable aviation fuels cost less than you think]. 

When it comes to the future success of Sustainable Aviation Fuel, factors like funding, regulatory policies, and consumer demand will play a crucial role in shaping the future of sustainable air cargo. By embracing climate-aware practices, cargo companies can do their part in the aviation sector’s journey toward achieving net-zero emissions, thus securing a sustainable future for airfreight.