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Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) in Europe: Navigating Towards a Greener Future

In the quest for environmental sustainability, the European aviation industry stands at a pivotal crossroads. The implementation of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) has emerged as a cornerstone in the European Union's strategy to reduce the aviation sector's carbon footprint. As the world grapples with the urgent need to combat climate change, SAF presents a promising path forward, offering a greener alternative to traditional jet fuels. This article delves into the current landscape and future prospects of the SAF industry within the European context, highlighting the crucial role it plays in meeting the EU's ambitious environmental goals.

The current state of the SAF industry, while still in its nascent stages, is poised for significant growth. With an estimated EU supply of less than 0.05% of the total jet fuel demand in 2020, the industry faces the challenge of scaling up to meet increasing mandates. These mandates, set to rise every five years starting from 2025, outline minimum levels for both supply and demand, charting a course for a more sustainable aviation future. As we explore the intricacies of SAF production capacity, demand forecasts, pricing dynamics, and regulatory measures, we gain insight into how this industry can rise to meet the EU's environmental aspirations.

Current Landscape and Future of the SAF Industry

The Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) industry in Europe is currently at a developmental crossroads. As of 2020, the European Union's supply of SAF was less than 0.05% of the total jet fuel demand, indicating a nascent industry with immense growth potential. This section aims to provide a comprehensive overview of this burgeoning sector, analyzing its current state and projecting its trajectory in the context of the proposed SAF mandates. 

SAF production

Source: EASA (2024)

The Map of EUROCONTROL and ECAC provides an overview about SAF policies and availability at airports. 

1. The Inception Stage of SAF: As the industry stands today, SAF's presence in the EU's aviation fuel mix is minimal but poised for expansion. The current landscape is characterized by limited production capacities and a growing recognition of the need for alternative fuel sources in aviation.

2. Regulatory Framework and Mandates: The European Union has instituted ambitious mandates to foster the growth of the SAF industry. Beginning in 2025, these mandates will set minimum levels for both SAF supply and demand, escalating every five years. This regulatory approach not only provides a clear trajectory for industry growth but also sends a strong signal to the market about the EU's commitment to sustainable aviation.

3. Challenges and Opportunities: One of the primary challenges facing the SAF industry is scaling production capacities to meet the upcoming mandates. However, this challenge also presents significant opportunities for innovation, investment, and development within the sector.

4. The Path Forward: Looking ahead, the SAF industry must navigate a complex landscape of technological advancements, economic considerations, and regulatory compliance. The future of this sector is not only crucial for meeting the EU's environmental goals but also for establishing a more sustainable and resilient aviation industry.

In conclusion, the SAF industry, while still in its early stages, is at a critical juncture. With the right mix of policy support, technological innovation, and industry collaboration, it has the potential to transform the aviation sector and significantly contribute to the EU's climate objectives.

Production Capacity and Demand (2020 to 2030)

The trajectory of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) in Europe from 2020 to 2030 is marked by ambitious goals and the imperative need for a significant scale-up in production. This period is pivotal for laying the groundwork to meet the increasing demand for SAF, driven by the EU's environmental policies and the ReFuelEU Aviation initiative.

SAF projects1

SAF projects2

Source: World Economic Forum (2021)

1. Anticipated Demand in 2030: According to the ReFuelEU Aviation initiative, the demand for aviation fuel at EU airports is projected to be around 46 million tonnes by 2030. To align with the goal of a 5% SAF blend for all flights departing from EU airports, approximately 2.3 million tonnes of SAF will be required.

2. Current Production Capacity: As of now, the maximum potential SAF production capacity within the EU is estimated at about 0.24 million tonnes. This figure represents only 10% of the amount needed to meet the proposed 2030 mandate, highlighting a significant gap between current capabilities and future requirements.

SAF production

Source: sGU (2023)

3. Expansion and Growth Prospects: The industry is poised for growth, with several existing SAF producers announcing significant capacity increases. Furthermore, the entry of new market participants is anticipated to bolster the production capacity. If all existing biofuel facilities in Europe were optimized for SAF production, the potential capacity could reach the required 2.3 million tonnes.

4. Feedstock and Fuel Pathways: The majority of the feedstock for SAF is expected to come from used cooking oils, animal fats, waste oils, and sustainable biomass. More than 60% of the European SAF supply in 2030 is estimated to be covered by HEFA (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids) and Alcohol-to-Jet pathway fuels.

Production Capacity and Demand – Beyond 2030 to 2050

As we look beyond 2030 towards 2050, the landscape of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) in Europe presents both significant challenges and opportunities. The ambitious targets set for this period under the ReFuelEU Aviation initiative necessitate a profound transformation in SAF production and demand.

1. The 2040 and 2050 Targets: The ReFuelEU Aviation proposal sets forth that 32% and 63% of jet fuel consumed by flights departing from EU airports should be SAF by 2040 and 2050, respectively. This translates to an annual requirement of approximately 14.8 million tonnes of SAF by 2040, and 28.6 million tonnes by 2050.

2. Projected Demand and Production Challenges: With a projected demand of around 46 million tonnes of aviation fuel in both 2040 and 2050, the industry faces the formidable task of scaling up production significantly. This necessitates not only technological advancements but also substantial investment in infrastructure and resources.

3. Need for Additional Production Plants: To meet these targets, a substantial increase in the number of SAF production plants within the EU is essential. It is estimated that 7 additional plants will be needed by 2030 and a staggering 104 additional plants by 2050. This underscores the magnitude of the challenge at hand.

4. Renewable Electricity for PtL Fuels: The production of Power-to-Liquid (PtL) fuels, a key component of the SAF mix, will require a significant share of the EU’s renewable electricity generation. By 2050, up to 5.5% of the EU’s renewable electricity could be directed towards PtL fuel production.

Overall CO2 Emissions Reductions

The adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) is a critical component in the strategy to reduce CO2 emissions in the European aviation sector. This section examines the potential impact of SAF on overall emissions and its contribution to achieving the EU’s environmental objectives.


Source: EASA (2024)

1. Emission Reduction Potential of SAF: Different SAF pathways offer varying degrees of CO2e emissions reductions compared to conventional jet fuels. These reductions are crucial in the context of the 2030 Climate Target Plan, as the aviation sector seeks to align with broader environmental goals.

2. Modelling Future SAF Production and Usage: Projections based on modelled future SAF production and mandated usage suggest a significant decrease in the aviation sector's carbon footprint. The increased uptake of SAF, as mandated by EU policies, is expected to contribute substantially to this reduction.

3. The Impact Illustrated: Data and models, such as those represented in Figure 4.8., clearly illustrate the potential impact of SAF on the aviation sector’s emissions. These models take into account the varying CO2e reduction capabilities of different SAF pathways and the projected increase in their production and use.

4. Towards the 2030 Climate Goals: The strategic incorporation of SAF in the EU's aviation fuel mix is poised to play a pivotal role in meeting the ambitious objectives of the 2030 Climate Target Plan. This shift towards SAF is not just a regulatory compliance measure, but also a substantial step towards a more sustainable and environmentally responsible aviation industry.

SAF Price Dynamics

The pricing dynamics of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) are a critical factor in their adoption and scalability within the European aviation industry. This section explores the current pricing landscape of SAF, its comparison with fossil-based jet fuels, and the anticipated trends influencing SAF prices in the future.

1. Current Price Comparison: As of now, the cost of SAF is significantly higher than that of conventional jet fuels. Current estimates suggest that SAF prices can range from 1.5 to 6 times higher than the approximately €600 per tonne cost of fossil-based jet fuel. This price disparity poses a challenge to the widespread adoption of SAF.

2. Factors Influencing SAF Prices: Several factors contribute to the wide range in SAF pricing. These include the varying levels of industrial and technological maturity across different SAF production pathways and the uncertainty surrounding production costs, especially for emerging technologies.

3. Future Price Predictions: Accurately predicting the future trajectory of SAF prices is complex due to various influencing factors. These include fluctuating feedstock prices, the evolving electricity mix for energy-intensive SAF production methods like Power-to-Liquid (PtL), and external uncertainties such as the COVID-19 pandemic and global bioenergy policies.

4. Potential for Price Reduction: Despite these challenges, there is an expectation of a long-term reduction in SAF production costs. This is likely to result from economies of scale as production ramps up and technological advancements that enhance efficiency and reduce costs. Furthermore, economic incentives such as market-based measures (e.g., EU ETS, CORSIA) and potential tax credits could play a significant role in narrowing the price gap with fossil-based jet fuels.