The pandemic’s silver lining is that since it began, the world has increasingly moved to adopt green technologies. During the pandemic, when air and road travel came to a standstill, pollution in the skies dissipated. To the surprise of many, once obfuscated landscapes became clearly visible. Even climate change sceptics had to change their tune.

Now that the pandemic is nearly over, the world has doubled down on its commitment to transition to green technologies.

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Late last year, at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow, India announced ambitious goals aimed at cutting emissions. The Indian PM committed to cutting carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by 2030, reducing the nation’s carbon intensity to less than 45 per cent by the end of the decade, and turning India into a net-zero emitter by 2070.

The targets of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) — which was adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization in 2016 — must be met even sooner. CORSIA will become mandatory by 2027; meaning all airlines and aircraft will have to offset any growth in CO2 emissions over 2020 levels.

Neither the COP26 nor CORSIA targets can be met without adding sustainable air-fuel (SAF) to the aviation fuel mix. Such fuel can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 80 per cent.

Sustainable fuels are already being used

SAF is made using synthetic sources or biological ones such as crops, algae, or even common waste.

In India, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) along with the Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP) is engaged in research and production of SAF. The SAF produced by CSIR-IIP is already formally approved and certified. Some Indian Air Force aircraft are powered by this fuel. Last year, IndiGo partnered with CSIR-IIP in leading the deployment of SAF in India and globally.

Recently, IndiGo has taken delivery of its first aircraft operating on SAF from Airbus. It was the first international flight operated by any Indian carrier using SAF.

Locked in a chicken and egg conundrum

While SAF has the potential to cut carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent, airlines are reticent to widely adopt it due to its high cost. Today SAF’s share in aviation fuel stands at less than 0.1 per cent.

The aviation industry and developers of SAF face a chicken and egg conundrum. Aviation companies state they would be willing to buy sustainable fuel if it were less expensive; for instance, only 50 per cent more expensive than conventional jet fuel, rather than three times more expensive, as it is today.

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Those trying to develop sustainable fuel, state they could get the price of such fuel down if they had surety of big orders by a certain date.

The circular nature of this problem means we need to work together as an industry to enable large-scale production and use of SAF, to bring down the cost and catalyse adoption by airlines. But it will take time.

Reasons for optimism

According to the World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition Report 2021, India is especially well-positioned to have a significant impact on SAF. The report stated that by 2025, India will become the world's third-largest aviation market in the world. Currently, it ranks eight. And India generates massive amounts of agricultural residue. Such by-products of farming like husk, chaff, used cooking oil, and other solid waste can be used to produce SAF.

Also, existing aircraft are designed to run on 50 per cent blends of kerosene. This means biofuels can be used directly in existing aircraft. Hence airlines don’t need to upgrade their fleets to use SAF.

To take advantage of the country’s abundant agricultural residue, new supply chains that allow non-edible oils to be transported need to be created. This, according to IIP, is the real obstacle to using agricultural residue to create SAF.

SAF is the future

The world’s leaders have committed to a net-zero emission future. Now, it’s a question of implementing policies that help nations reach set goals. Though widespread adoption of SAF is some years away, its use is inevitable and will proliferate. To get the ball rolling, the government may spur SAF by reducing taxation to promote adoption of SAF by airlines. In this scenario, consumers will have to foot the bill, yet in the short run, it may be the only way to catalyse demand for SAF until the chicken and egg conundrum is resolved.

(The writer is whole time Director & CEO, IndiGo)