• Decarbonization
  • Federal Government
  • Fuel Efficiency and Emerging Technologies

Creating a More Sustainable, Resilient National Airspace System: Part 4

Christian Albertson
Sep 23, 2021

Plane

Part 3 of this series examined the importance of partnerships for sustainability, including the Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions, and Noise (CLEEN) program initiated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Although the CLEEN initiative is designed to accelerate the development of new aircraft and engines, how much should the US government and associated agencies be involved in the airspace sustainability issue?  

Government Involvement Is Necessary

The simple answer is: as much as possible. With the direction the current administration is taking, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, FAA, and other agencies should not only be working on a carbon neutral National Airspace System (NAS), they should be leading the way. While a multitude of companies are working on their own or with business partners, it is time for the US government to help guide the carbon neutral initiative to success. 

For instance, the largest pollution source in the NAS is the fuel that the aircraft burn. In the US alone, over 45,000 flights per day take place, and according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, over 1.078 million barrels of jet fuel (45 million gallons) are used per day. This is where the numbers get uncomfortable: each gallon of jet fuel burned produces 21.1 pounds of CO2. This equates to nearly 500 tons of CO2 produced each day by commercial US aircraft.   

Sustainable Flight Requires Safe Fuel

The current leading decarbonization solution for the aviation industry is sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which reduces emissions by 20% to 80% or more, depending on the fuel and feedstock. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, only 1.7 million gallons on average of SAF is produced per year, with an additional 2.11 billion gallons per year forecast by 2032 worldwide. With the US needing 8.21 billion gallons per year, where do we get the rest of the fuel from? With current SAF production levels so low, how is the gap going to be closed without large investments by corporations building refineries and growing feedstocks? 

The government should lead the way by enacting legislation, requiring SAF standards, and providing additional funding to both research and produce additional sources of SAF. Stakeholders should step up to make sure this issue is approached from all directions while pressing the government for these standards and funding. The whole of the industry needs support to quickly and safely generate the volume of SAF needed to reach government mandated goals and industry fuel requirements.