Attempts to discredit CORSIA through false assertions about SAF do not stand up to scrutiny, says Michael Gill, Director, Aviation Environment.

As the 40th triennial International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly begins in Montreal this week, the issue of aviation and climate change is top of the agenda. Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s trip to North America on a zero-emissions boat was well-publicized (less well publicized was the fact that extra crew needed to fly back to the US to bring the boat home!). 

At the time of writing, Greta is preparing to lead a march in Montreal, past the ICAO headquarters, during the triennial Assembly. Regardless of whether she comes for a dialogue or just to lecture, major work on aviation sustainability is already under way. Two of the most important environmental options on the table are the CORSIA international offsetting scheme, and the work to accelerate the production of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). CORSIA offers the prospect of generating around $40 billion in climate finance and reducing some 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 between now and 2035. It’s a vital part of our target for carbon-neutral growth from 2020. 

Increasing the production of SAF is a separate issue. SAF can ultimately cut emissions up to 80% compared to ordinary jet fuel, but we’re a long way off widespread deployment. What we need to do is create enough economy of scale to ensure SAF is financially competitive with kerosene. We estimate that this will become viable once production reaches 7 billion litres—or around 2% of all jet fuel use. So our first aim is to reach that 2% goal, which we hope to achieve by 2025. 

In the past, particularly because of issues in their introduction into road transport, biofuels have had a mixed reputation among the environmental movement. The new energy sector has come a long way since then and production is far more sophisticated. Nevertheless, some activists, whose ultimate aim is to reduce the opportunities for people to fly, are deliberately casting doubt on the effectiveness of CORSIA and the environmental credentials of SAF. A recent press release from a group calling themselves ‘Biofuelwatch’ is particularly misleading, and it’s therefore important to set the record straight. Here’s the key passage from their release:

Biofuels from palm oil
“Corsia promotes large-scale aviation biofuels, likely from palm oil, which will cause more deforestation and make climate change even worse,” explains Rachel Smolker from Biofuelwatch. ICAO’s goal is to increase so-called “alternative aviation fuels.” A new briefing by Biofuelwatch explains that aviation biofuels are most likely to be produced from palm oil, a leading cause of deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and human rights abuses. The company Neste, with a facility in Singapore, the heart of palm oil growing region, has already announced its intention to become the world leader in aviation biofuel production. Introducing huge new demand for palm oil will only exacerbate the existing problems with palm oil, and do nothing to reduce emissions from aviation.

Let’s look at these assertions in turn.

1. CORSIA promotes large-scale aviation biofuels

Factually incorrect. CORSIA is an offsetting scheme. It allows an airline to use SAF to meet its offsetting obligations, but the scheme does not promote SAF. In fact, the incentive is minimal—much less than other schemes such as the EU RED. And CORSIA actually has the toughest set of compliance rules of any international regulation.

2. Aviation biofuels are most likely to be produced from palm oil

Wrong. CORSIA makes it extremely difficult for palm oil to qualify for recognition, thanks in part to the contribution of NGOs, working with the industry, to define the methodology, such as including the impacts of land use change. Moreover, airlines at the 2017 IATA AGM unanimously passed a resolution committing themselves to use only SAF fuel sources that conserve an ecological balance by avoiding the depletion of natural resources.

All SAF being produced is certified by either the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) or the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification scheme. The RSB in particular is regarded as the most rigorous certification scheme and includes members such as the World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation, ProForest, and UNCTAD. 

3. The company Neste, with a facility in Singapore, the heart of palm oil growing region, has already announced its intention to become the world leader in aviation biofuel production

This is a deliberate confusion of two separate issues. The fact is that Neste has explicitly stated that no decision has been made yet on the refinery output mix from Singapore. And in any case any fuel for the aviation sector will not use palm as a feedstock. In reality, 75% of SAF volume in forward purchase agreements will be produced from wastes and residues.

4. Introducing huge new demand for palm oil will only exacerbate the existing problems with palm oil, and do nothing to reduce emissions from aviation

Deliberately misleading, and factually wrong. Aviation has no intention to use palm oil. Whereas the successful deployment of SAF will be a major contributor towards the industry’s stated target of reducing carbon emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2050.


In short, the transparent attempt to discredit CORSIA through inaccurate assertions about SAF completely fails to stand up to any scrutiny. The media and the concerned public are invited to contact any of the members of the ICAO Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection, who will confirm how the aviation industry and serious environmental groups are working together to ensure that sustainable fuels adhere to the highest environmental standards. Moreover, any incentives under CORSIA are the most rigorous of any comparable scheme in the world, and avoid unintended consequences. We’d also invite all interested parties to check with the 27 CEOs who are signatories to the Sustainable Aviation Fuel User Group (SAFUG), which represents at least 30% of global fuel uplift. They would be happy to reaffirm their commitment to rigorous certification for SAF.

Recent independent research shows that when the public is presented with a basket of options for more sustainable flying, including taxation, flying quotas, and offsetting, the most popular solution by far is the deployment of sustainable aviation fuels. The wisdom of crowds is absolutely right on this one. We would therefore urge all those with a desire to see carbon emissions reduced to join the coalition that is working to ensure sustainable aviation fuels are deployed in bulk as soon as possible.