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UAE firms at forefront of fuelling sustainable aviation

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Emirates made a sustainable aviation fuel demonstration flight last month
  • Sustainable aviation fuel is approved as blend with conventional fuel
  • Emirates, Etihad, Masdar and Adnoc working to reduce emissions
  • Renewable energy could account for 65% of emissions reductions

Emirates operated its first flight with one of its engines powered entirely with sustainable aviation fuel last month – a milestone for UAE firms as they seek to lead the industry towards decarbonisation. 

The flight, which took off from Dubai International Airport and flew for more than an hour, was a showpiece event for the UAE’s Year of Sustainability which culminates in the hosting of the Cop28 climate summit.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is approved for use in all aircraft, but only in blends of up to 50 percent with conventional jet fuel. 

But a host of UAE entities, including Emirates, Etihad, renewable energy firm Masdar and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company are working to change that and reduce aviation-related carbon dioxide emissions, which account for around 2.5 percent of the total. 

“The cooperation between UAE airlines, Masdar, Adnoc and international oil companies is the kind of collaboration that will be required to scale up sustainable aviation fuels to the volumes ultimately required,” Robin Mills, CEO of the Qamar Energy consultancy, told AGBI.

“It ensures their certification and logistics, and assures the producers that there is a viable end market willing and able to pay the increased costs. 

“The involvement of Masdar is important, as it’s clear that conventional biofuel pathways will not be able to provide SAF at the longer term volumes and costs required.”

SAF is able to reduce net carbon dioxide emissions by up to 80 percent, according to the International Air Transport Association, and could account for 65 percent of the emissions reductions required for net zero in 2050.

Today, it accounts for less than 0.1 percent of airlines’ fuel use and costs almost three times as much as regular fuel, Mills added.

For its latest demonstration flight Emirates worked alongside GE Aerospace, Boeing, Honeywell, Neste and Virent.

The 100 percent SAF supplied one GE90 engine, with conventional jet fuel supplying the other engine.

“We hope that demonstration flights like this will help open the door to scale up the SAF supply chain, make it more available and accessible across geographies, and affordable for broader industry adoption in the future,” Adel Al Redha, chief operating officer, Emirates Airline, said.

Etihad Airways, Masdar, Adnoc, BP and Abu Dhabi Waste Management Company, better known as Tadweer, also announced an agreement recently to conduct a joint feasibility study on exploring the production of SAF in the UAE. 

If the study’s conclusions are positive, the partners are targeting the region’s first commercial-scale production facility in Abu Dhabi.

In November Etihad also signed a deal with Cepsa to research and produce SAF from raw materials that do not compete with food resources, such as used cooking oils, non-food animal waste or biodegradable waste from various industries.

“Our deal with Cepsa allows us to tackle the first challenge, building demand for SAF, which in turn encourages further production and increases availability to eventually lower costs,” Adam Boukadida, chief financial officer, Etihad Aviation Group, said.

“It’s a snowball effect which is essential if we’re to overcome the main challenges standing in the way of a commercially viable solution.”

Andrew Charlton, managing director of Aviation Advocacy, added: “We currently have nowhere near enough biofuels, despite having banked our future on them.

“To make them in a way that doesn’t steal from food stock will call for a lot of clean energy.  Water helps too. If the long term plan is hydrogen, we need clean power, such as solar, to make it. 

“The UAE can capitalise on this and the work done by Adnoc and Masdar is going to be important.”

Aviation supports over 13 percent of the UAE’s GDP and the growing sustainability efforts have support from the government.

In a recent report from the World Economic Forum, Suhail bin Mohamed Al Mazrouei, the UAE’s minister of energy and infrastructure, said lower carbon aviation fuels will need to be deployed as soon as possible to expedite decarbonisation. 

David Tarsh, founder of Tarsh Consulting, which provides strategic advice to the Energy and Environment Alliance, said he expects companies in the GCC to continue to play an important role in tackling carbon emissions. 

“The pressure on companies in the travel industry to act sustainably is relentless and soon legislation will require it,” he said. “I would expect them to be leading investors in initiatives such as this.”

Since the first test flight in 2008, over 400,000 commercial flights have taken place using alternative and traditional fuel blends, according to the Air Transport Action Group.