Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is a term, nigh used in the common parlance, yet it has gained traction in recent years due to two primary reasons, vis-à-vis, an increasing focus over climate mitigation and the new objectives adopted by various nations including India, pertaining to net zero carbon emission percentage in the coming years. With air travel becoming more and more popular, it became essential for growing economies like India, to establish certain principles and frameworks promoting sustainability in the aviation sector. While countries like the United States of America and the European Union started coming up with laws and frameworks in this regard, the Indian existing policies called for an enhanced implementation.
This article, thus, undertakes a study of the various policies existing in the country and seeks to determine a possible way in which the Indian aviation sector can become green.
In the year 2023, India has been classified to have become the most populous country of the world, which makes it critical for us to reduce the carbon footprint, threatened to increase on a per capita basis. An efficient method to facilitate this reduction is a strict compliance with the country’s resolution made at the 26th United Nations Conference of Parties (UNCoP) and the proposal announced in the Union Budget 2023 – 24. Being a developing country, the most important sectors to attain such reduction can be specified to be those concerning infrastructure and transportation, which further includes the aviation sector. Such latter addition is also in line with the unforeseen increase in the frequency of air travel being undertaken, not only at a national level, but at a global level as well.
For reducing such carbon footprint of the aviation sector, it is necessary to acknowledge and adopt various sustainable methods, primarily the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) or drop-in fuels, which have been classified by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), to have the largest impact on the residual carbon emissions and a potential of driving the overall reductions by the year 2050.
This concept of SAFs, however, is not new to India, and has been incorporated or even proposed to be incorporated in many of its policies, including the National Policy on Biofuels, 2018 (subsequently amended in 2022) (NBP), and the National Green Aviation Policy (NGAP), wherein the latter exists only on a White Paper. Other than this, India has also been keen on following the principles adopted by the ICAO in the form of CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) Sustainability Criteria for CORSIA Eligible Fuels (CORSIA-CORSIA). Though, it is needful to mention, that the implementation of neither of these policies has been adequate enough to have a substantial effect on the carbon emissions exhibited by the industry.
Having said that, it is also pertinent to note that the country’s zero carbon emission resolution is becoming stronger by the minute, which is apparent by the May 19, 2023 Air Asia domestic commercial passenger flight, which completed its journey, using indigenously manufactured SAF, thereby setting a milestone for the aviation sector. This flight also gave rise to a vision, where, if not all, a substantial percentage of flights were powered by Biofuels, thus considerably reducing the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, which are presently in terms of approximately18,900 tonnes, as per a report published in the year 2021.
For realising this vision, it is thus, manifest to understand the lacunae and remove all ambiguities in the present laws, or to even come up with a new law, with the objective of making the future of the aviation sector, sustainable.
SAFs – Need for a Special Legislation or Better Implementation?
Needless to mention, SAFs or drop-in fuels are covered under the ambit of Biofuels, specifically ‘advanced biofuels’ in terms of Indian policies. As per the NPB, ‘drop-in fuels’ include those liquid fuels which have been produced from biomass agri residues or waste materials, which abide by the Indian standards for Petrol (MS), High-Speed Diesel (HSD) or jet fuels, either in their pure or blended form and can be utilized in vehicles without any modifications. While the policy makes no mention of the term SAF, the latter term’s origin can be drawn from the ICAO, which gives a general definition of these fuels being either renewable or waste driven.
The NPB, however, does define the term ‘advanced biofuels’ and limits their manufacturing to the use of such raw materials which do not compete with food crops for land use (edible crops used for human consumption). The NPB also provides for ideas on how the use of biofuels can be strengthened within the country, while calling for the establishment of a National Biofuel Coordination Committee (NBCC) which shall be responsible for establishing synergy between the departments to ascertain an efficient implementation.
For the Indian scenario, this is where the legislations concerning the use of SAFs stop, which means that neither of the policies including the NPB or the NGAP, provide for strict guidelines concerning the caps on the burning of fossil fuels or the use of SAFs, thus, providing for a dire need to implement a special legislation enforced on these terms. Although, prior to delving into such a need, it is necessary to study the various policies and papers existing or even remotely applicable to the country.
A Study of the Existing Indian Legislative Scenario
The NPB was initially enacted in the year 2018, with the vision of increasing the use of biofuels and to attain National Energy Security, as well as Climate Mitigation. In the year 2022, certain amendments were also introduced in the policy, to make it more efficient and adaptable. With a vast scope and a multi-pronged approach, the policy was enacted with a distinctive promise and potential, even if the realization of such potential may be visible, only in the long run. Through this legislation, the government called for an active participation of all stakeholders, a detailed research and development in the manufacturing of biofuels, and an incentivisation of such fuels to encourage their utilisation by the industries. While the policy may be considered to be landmark legislation, the sheer lack of its implementation has left it on crutches in terms of the usage and manufacturing of biofuels.
At the outset, it is necessary to note that the NGAP is yet to be enacted and that the same only exists in the form of a ‘White Paper’ published by the Ministry of Civil Aviation in the year 2019. Though, provided by the importance of the document, it becomes necessary to discuss the policy, in order to understand the objective and vision of the industry in accordance with that possessed by the Government of India.
The NGAP was proposed after a caution was issued by the ICAO, specifying the possibility of severe disruptions to the aviation industry as a direct consequence of climate change. Thus, through the policy, the Government sought to introduce efficient land use, enhanced infrastructure, and sustainable development, amongst other goals which could be adopted by the aviation industry. The vision statement, as provided within the policy, called for the promotion and strengthening of an all-inclusive green and sustainable growth of air transportation of the country.
Amongst other ideas proposed to be incorporated within the policy, the most essential one pertains to a plan for establishing a framework, which will facilitate the reduction of GHG emissions by the industry. Other than this, the paper further called for inclusion of the principles enshrined in various international documents like the CORSIA-CORSIA and the European Union – Emission Trading System (EU ETS).
It may be needful to specify, that even within the various benefits of the NGAP, it also suffered from some shortcomings, like the absence of a plan through which a reduction in the price of SAFs was proposed to be achieved. However, provided by the fact that the policy was in the right direction and sought to make the Indian aviation sector the ‘most resource efficient’ one, its enforcement was desirable.
NITI Aayog and its Various Policies
In June 2022, NITI Aayog published areport enlisting the ideas or plans through which, various Indian sectors could attain the goal of a ‘deep decarbonisation’ by using green hydrogen based fuels. In line with the ‘Green Hydrogen Policy’ enacted by the Government of India in February 2022, the paper discussed the potential role for the fuel, in the sectors of aviation and shipping. As per their research, the aviation industry was found to have the potential to be the second-largest emitter of freight transport related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, by the year 2050. In lieu of this, various technology options were proposed, one of which was the use of SAFs which are made from waste or agricultural residues. It was specified that through such usage, a total reduction of almost 3.6 giga tonnes of cumulative CO2 emissions can be achieved.
Though the paper in itself is powerful, in terms of proposing solutions, as aforementioned, an absence of legislative backing has rendered the solution, rather ineffective.
The Internationally Accepted Frameworks
CORSIA Sustainability Criteria for CORSIA Eligible Fuels (CORSIA-CORSIA)
CORSIA-CORSIA, being a carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation, was released by the ICAO in November 2021. As per its namesake, the scheme provided for a detailed criteria and principles for recognizing SAFs, on the basis of their expected emission rates. For example, as per the details laid down underclause 1 of Chapter 1 of the scheme, the principle of CORSIA fuels generating lower carbon emissions was supported by the criteria of a minimum expected reduction of 10% GHG emissions in comparison to that of an aviation fuel.
CORSIA-CORSIA further provides certain provisions for ‘Approved Sustainability Certification Schemes’ meant to be issued to the companies which comply with the sustainability criteria as enshrined under the scheme. Although, the primary limitation, to an efficient implementation of this framework, was a restriction in its applicability to those international flights which only operate between member states, thus excluding domestic flights altogether.
The European Union Emission Trading System is claimed to be the ‘cornerstone’ of the European Union’s policy to combat climate change and reduce GHG emissions. Being the world’s first carbon market, the EU-ETS seeks to cover almost every sector of the economy, within its provisions, including that of aviation. Such coverage is accomplished through a series of amendments and connected policies, implemented on a time-to-time basis.
On July 14, 2021, in one such amendment, the EU ETS established a goal of attaining climate neutrality by the year 2050, wherein a plan concerning the required actions by the aviation industry was also proposed. This plan included directions to the airlines to ‘monitor, report, and verify their emissions and to subsequently surrender their allowances against them. A simple explanation of such monitoring and surrendering may be undertaken from the cap and trade system. Thus, the airlines are only allowed to emit certain amounts of gases (cap) and the operator has to surrender such allowance to cover its emissions (trade). As per the EU ETS, such caps are reduced over time, to enable a reduction in the allowances, where this method has resulted in a comparable decrease of more than 17 million tonnes worth of carbon emissions per year for the European Union Flights.
The Implementation and Applicability of the Policies and Other Documents
As aforementioned, in effect, the Indian sub-continent only has one policy in force, which seeks to govern the use and promotion of biofuels, in general. A special policy, however, like the one proposed by the NGAP, is yet to be enacted within the country. Needless to mention that provisions pertaining to a cap on the price of SAFs and other such provisions, the enforcement of which would result in the actualization of the sustainable goals, are yet to be introduced within the legislative hemisphere.
Having said that, an important aspect which is pertinent to be brought into light is the fact that even in the absence of such a proposed policy, the Indian aviation sector has fastened their seat belts to take on the journey towards a carbon emission free future. Examples of which are the recent progressive steps taken by the Indian Institute of Petroleum in association with an Airline company, to develop a ‘homegrown fuel’ which shall protrude lesser GHGs than the traditional fossil fuels. Similar steps are also being taken by various other public and private sector organizations, with a view of attaining globally accredited, price-efficient SAFs, which may be able to change the face of the aviation sector.
However, it is undeniable, that in the absence of a related policy, the prospective success attached to these steps may only be attained in a term, longer than the Indian net-carbon emission goal year, that is, the year 2070.
Practical Challenges and Possible Solutions
Undoubtedly, SAFs are the most efficient form of fuels presently known to man, which can help the aviation sector in attaining sustainability. On the other hand, another undisputed fact is the outrageous costing of this fuel, which has an inadvertent effect of deterring the industry from accepting a complete substitution of their traditional practices. This exorbitant costing is a direct consequence of various factors, including the unavailability of adequate raw materials, and the connected cost of the machinery required for generating SAFs.
Thus, for achieving a diminished rate of GHG emissions, the primary focus of the country must be to tackle the aforementioned issues, which will ultimately lead to the Net-Zero carbon goal.
Artificial Intelligence and SAFs
The ongoing era has overwhelmed the world with an advent of artificial intelligence (AI) in all its sectors, whether concerning infrastructure, transportation, tourism, and even healthcare. With such growing relevance, the potential of AI, in bettering the aviation sector must be adequately embraced.
Through an efficient use of AI, the aviation industry might attain a significant reduction in the cost of the machinery required for the production of SAFs. This may be inferred in relation to the unique characteristic of the AI to perform machine learning and tackle the anticipated obstacles. Another prospective use of AI can be towards understanding the effect of a combination / blend of various raw materials in acting as SAFs for the industry, thus tackling the complexity of their availability.
While it may be necessary to note that such prospective usage may only be ideal, it may also be appropriate to specify that the same may not be entirely far-fetched.
Conclusion – The Way Forward
SAFs, or drop-in fuels are the best-known means to attain the net-zero carbon emission end. While it is undeniable, that sustainability may also be achieved through various other methods, including the recent prominence of e-planes, it is also necessary to reiterate the report of the ICAO, holds SAFs in high regard, as the primary and the most efficient method of attaining carbon neutrality. Not to mention the fact that, in the Indian scenario the use and manufacturing of SAFs may also be comparatively easier to reach due to the easy availability of materials owing to the unhinged growth of our agricultural sector and its related waste generation. The other posed challenge relating to the cost, however, may be a deep-rooted hurdle.
In theUnion Budget 2022-23, the green economy vision was accompanied by another goal, a growth of technology, specifically that concerning AI, where the Hony. Minister of Finance, sought to establish Research and Development Centres in well-known educational Institutes, which shall focus on the development of AI in favour of the country. By utilizing this in-house resource, for the benefit of the aviation industry, the Indian economy may, very well be successful, in bringing the costs down to the measure of affordability, therefore, bringing an additional level of encouragement to the private players to adapt to the use of SAFs.
Other options including the enforcement of a specific legislation, which deals with the use of SAFs and limits the use of fossil fuels, may also be considered. This claim is based on the comparative effects of such policies in various countries like the European Union, which, as earlier mentioned, has been enormously successful, and on the new introduction of such special legislations in countries like the United States of America (Sustainable Aviation Fuel Act, H.R. 741). In the alternative, and as an interim measure, certain other options like electronically powered propellors and e-planes may even be considered, wherein the latter option is even gaining traction in the country.
The way forward, perhaps, may only be a combination of policies and technologies, which will bring about a positive reinforcement of the greening of the aviation sector.
About the Author
Mr. Amarendra Gogoi is a Partner at Legacy Law Offices LLP and possesses more than 14 years of rich professional work experience as a legal practitioner. His practice areas include Contracts & Commercial Laws as well as Legal Opinions, Advisory and Vetting Work for various developmental projects and companies. Prior to his association with Legacy, Amarendra worked as the Manager in the Legal Department at Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Ltd, where he provided high-quality professional legal services pertaining to contract management, liaising and advisory services pertaining to medico-legal agreements.
Mr. Gogoi is a highly experienced legal professional with rich knowledge and wide expertise.
Preferred Method of Citation
Amarendra Gogoi, “Sustainable Aviation Fuel – A study of the Existing Frameworks and a Need for Better Implementation” (IJPIEL, 7 June 2023)