Climate 411

UN aviation agency sets a new standard for sustainable flight by adopting critical fuels criteria

This blog post was authored by Pedro Piris-Cabezas, Director of Sustainable International Transport & Lead Senior Economist at Environmental Defense Fund, and Anna Stratton, Consultant.

ICAO Building in Montreal

As the world convened for COP 26, the United Nation’s civil aviation body announced a major milestone in the transition to sustainable flight by adopting an expanded set of sustainability criteria for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).   

SAF — jet fuel made from renewable feedstock instead of fossil fuels — provides a distinct opportunity to put aviation on a pathway to net-zero climate impact by 2050. But, to achieve that level of success, the SAF that airlines will use to be eligible for ICAO’s emissions reduction program, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), must meet a high standard of environmental integrity, and be accurately tracked and accounted for. Indeed, not all alternative fuels are equal. Some make environmental problems worse. Deploying SAF without a robust accounting and sustainability framework could negate the entire climate benefits and even increase emissions several-fold compared to fossil jet fuels.  

After years of hesitation, ICAO Council Members finally seized the opportunity to set these forward-looking sustainability safeguards, ensuring that SAF eligible under CORSIA lives up to its sustainability potential, and provides certainty for SAF producers as they make investments in the sustainability of their supply chains and operations.  

Not only is this decision a major milestone for ICAO, it is also the first time a UN body has defined a clear standard for what constitutes sustainability for a mitigation action. ICAO has also operationalized it with a full-fledged monitoring, reporting and third-party verification system including a high level of assurance, which makes CORSIA the most comprehensive SAF Framework adopted to date.  

ICAO’s decision also sends a clear signal to countries embarking in SAF policy: support for SAF must include robust environmental safeguards. This is critical because ICAO’s SAF framework can enable the production of truly climate beneficial SAF but only if paired with effective national policies that generate the needed economic incentives. 

The Council’s adoption of the SAF sustainability criteria is a turning point in the aviation sector’s journey to decarbonize—but it is far from its final destination. Now, countries, airlines, and fuel producers must take action to jump-start high-integrity SAF by shaping their national SAF policies accordingly.  

EDF, as a member of the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA), the group of environmental NGOs with observer status at ICAO, took a leadership role in this important development. EDF created the space for this negotiation to take place in ICAO’s Committee for Aviation Environmental Protection and was granted the privilege to co-chair the technical negotiations on SAF sustainability matters together with the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This privileged position gave us the capacity to thoughtfully design the negotiations and create the necessary coalitions to ensure, against all odds, the sequential adoption of the sustainability criteria and framework along ICAO’s political decision-making process. 

What’s the role of the SAF sustainability criteria?  

The role of sustainability criteria is to safeguard against direct and indirect negative effects on ecosystems and communities that are not captured or are underestimated by the lifecycle assessment approach, and to promote sustainable development.  

To be eligible under ICAO’s CORSIA, SAF needs to meet the following overarching goals across its supply chain:  

  1. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil jet fuel on a lifecycle basis. The criteria ensures that SAF provides meaningful emissions reductions, counted across the full lifecycle of the fuel from feedstock to flight, and including key indirect environmental effects such as indirect land use change. The 10% minimum emissions reduction required by ICAO might appear disappointing at first sight, but it should be noted that—in its current shape—it is only intended as a safeguard to ensure that any emission reduction claim in CORSIA is backed up with real emissions reductions that go beyond the uncertainties associated to the lifecycle assessment methodology. Independently, only SAF that delivers large emissions reductions makes sense economically and environmentally speaking, which means that SAF with large land use change emissions is tacitly disqualified as a viable production pathway. That’s the magic of assessing SAF on a lifecycle basis including indirect land use change emissions. 
  2. Protect ecosystems and natural resources. The robust set of sustainability criteria also includes environmental safeguards against negative environmental effects that are not captured by the lifecycle emissions assessment—defending water quality, soil health, air qualitybiodiversity and conservation values. 
  3. Present no risks to human rights, food security, or local economies. Ensuring that SAF feedstock production does not present social risks, ICAO prioritized the inclusion of human and labor rights, land use rights and water use rights for local and indigenous communities. 
  4. Promote the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. As a United Nations body, the ICAO championed these sustainability criteria aiming for SAF to contribute to the achievement of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including eliminating poverty and promoting food security.  

What’s in the SAF sustainability criteria?  

The criteria cover 12 themes that encompass the three pillars of sustainability: social, environmental, economic. Provisions pertain to emissions reductions, carbon hotspots, water, soil, air, conservation, waste and chemicals, human and labor rights, land use rights and land use, water use rights, local and social development, and food security. For each theme, a principle a set of criteria are outlined. The criteria capture the binding provisions.  

To be eligible under ICAO’s CORSIA to generate emissions reductions for compliance purposes, SAF must meet the following criteria: 

Theme Principle Criteria 
1.  Greenhouse Gases (GHG) Principle: Sustainable Alternative Jet fuel should generate lower carbon emissions than conventional kerosene on a life cycle basis. Criterion 1: Sustainable alternative jet fuel shall achieve net greenhouse gas emissions of at least 10% compared to fossil jet fuel on a life cycle basis. 
2. Carbon stock 

  

Principle: Sustainable alternative jet fuel should not be made from biomass obtained from land with high carbon stock. Criterion 1: Sustainable alternative jet fuel shall not be made from biomass obtained from land converted after 1 January 2008 that was primary forests, wetlands, or peat lands and/or contributors to degradation of the carbon stock in primary forests, wetlands, or peat lands as these lands all have high carbon stocks. 
Criterion 2: In the event of land use conversion after 1 January 2008, as defined based on IPCC land categories, direct land use charge (DLUC) emissions shall be calculated. If DLUC greenhouse gas emissions exceed the default induced land use change (ILUC) value, the DLUC value shall replace the default ILUC value. 
 3. Water Principle: Production of sustainable alternative jet fuel should maintain or enhance water quality and availability. Criterion 1: Operational practices shall be implemented to maintain or enhance water quality. 
Criterion 2: Operational practices shall be implemented to use water efficiently and to avoid the depletion of surface or groundwater resources beyond replenishment capacities. 
 4. Soil Principle: Production of sustainable alternative jet fuel should maintain or enhance soil health. Criterion 1: Agricultural and forestry best management practices for feedstock production or residue collection shall be implemented to maintain or enhance soil health, such as physical, chemical and biological conditions. 
5. Air  Principle: Production of sustainable alternative jet fuel should minimize negative effects on air quality. Criterion 1: Air pollution emissions shall be limited. 
6. Conservation Principle: Production of sustainable alternative jet fuel should maintain or enhance biodiversity, conservation and ecosystem services. Criterion 1: Sustainable alternative jet fuel shall not be made from biomass obtained from areas that are protected for their biodiversity, conservation value, or ecosystems services, unless evidence is provided that shows the activity does not interfere with the protection purposes.
Criterion 2: Low invasive-risk feedstock shall be selected for cultivation and appropriate controls shall be adopted with the intention of preventing the uncontrolled spear of cultivated non-native species and modified microorganisms. 
Criterion 3: Operational practices shall be implemented to avoid adverse effects on areas that are protected for their biodiversity, conservation value, or ecosystem services. 
7. Waste and Chemicals Principle: Production of sustainable alternative jet fuel should promote responsible management of waste and use of chemicals. Criterion 1: Operational practices shall be implemented to ensure that waste arising from production processes as well as chemicals used are stored, handled and disposed of responsibly. 
Criterion 2: Operational practices shall be implemented to limit or reduce pesticide use. 
8. Human and labour rights Principle: Production of sustainable alternative jet fuel should respect human and labour rights. Criterion 1: Sustainable alternative jet fuel production shall respect human and labour rights. 
9. Land use rights and land use Principle: Production of sustainable alternative jet fuel should respect land rights and land use rights including indigenous and/or customary rights. Criterion 1: Sustainable alternative jet fuel production shall respect existing land rights and land use rights including indigenous people’s rights, both formal and informal. 
10. Water use rights Principle: Production of sustainable alternative jet fuel should respect prior formal or customary water use rights. Criterion 1: Sustainable alternative jet fuel production shall respect the existing water use rights of local and indigenous communities. 
11. Local and social development Principle: Production of sustainable alternative jet fuel should contribute to social and economic development in regions of poverty. Criterion 1: Sustainable alternative jet fuel production shall strive to, in regions of poverty, improve the socioeconomic conditions of the communities affected by the operations. 
12. Food security Principle: Production of sustainable alternative jet fuel should promote food security in food insecure regions. Criterion 1: Sustainable alternative jet fuel production shall, in food insecure regions, strive to enhance the local food security of directly affected stakeholders. 

Figure:  Sustainability Themes, Principles and Criteria recommended by ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection at its 2017 Steering group Meeting. The version eventually adopted by Council contains some enhancements but does not change fundamentally. The new version will be publicly released soon as an amendment to the ICAO CORSIA Document with the Sustainability Criteria.

How are  SAF sustainability criteria implemented?  

The ICAO sustainability framework works as an umbrella standard that relies on ICAO-approved independent Sustainability Certification Schemes (SCS) for its implementation.  These organizations define the sustainability certification requirements including the indicators and metrics to evaluate compliance with the criteria, set the requirements for certification bodies, auditors and accreditation bodies, and monitor the effectiveness of the assurance system. To become ICAO-approved SCS must undergo a thorough evaluation process and meet a comprehensive set of requirements in line with ICAO’s eligibility framework 

In conclusion, the newly adopted sustainability criteria take a robust and equitable approach, placing environmental and social safeguards on the production of SAF across its entire supply chain. It also provides a harmonized approach to ensure that airlines across the world strive for these same values of climate ambition, environmental integrity, human rights, and social equity.  

This new set of sustainability criteria and the broader sustainability frameworkare designed to ensure the future of flight allows travelers to see new horizons, connect with other cultures, visit faraway loved ones and collaborate internationally – while doing less harm to our climate, and respecting our environment, and local and indigenous communities.  As more countries, airlines, and fuel producers adopt and adhere to this robust criteria, the faster we can reach our destination of a net-zero emissions flight by 2050.  

Also posted in Aviation, International, United Nations / Read 1 Response

New EDF Research Shows More than 330,000 Workers Already Make Electric Trucks and Buses Throughout the United States, Potential for Tremendous Future Growth

The House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Build Back Better Act later this month, a bill with an unprecedented $555 billion in climate and clean air investments that will drive the creation of clean energy and manufacturing jobs. And the economic potential of manufacturing trucks and buses is underscored by two recent EDF reports – one examining the current landscape, and another offering a glimpse of what’s possible in the future.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans already make electric trucks and buses… Read More »

Also posted in Cars and Pollution, Climate Change Legislation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News / Comments are closed

What We’re Watching in Reconciliation: Regular Updates from EDF

Photo Credit: John Williams

Through the process known as budget reconciliation, Congress is now crafting a bill that could include significant investments in climate action that will drive economic and job growth. There are going to be a lot of moving parts over the next few weeks, which is why EDF will be weighing in regularly in this space to help break down what’s happening, and why it matters.

Want a primer on the key issues EDF will be watching? Read all about them here.

Nov. 19: 10 ways the Build Back Better Act will benefit the U.S.

The House of Representatives has passed the single most significant piece of climate legislation ever. Now it’s on its way to the Senate, where it will also need to be passed in order to become law.

This bill is incredibly important in the effort to transition to a climate-safe economy. The bill includes key climate and clean energy investments that will make a real difference in the lives of people and communities across America.

Here are ten ways the Build Back Better Act will benefit U.S. families and businesses: Read More »

Also posted in Cars and Pollution, Climate Change Legislation, Economics, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, News / Read 1 Response

The Supreme Court will review a crucial case about climate pollution from power plants. Now what?

(This post was co-authored by EDF legal fellow Jesse Hevia)

The Supreme Court has agreed to review a D.C. Circuit decision that struck down the Trump administration’s rule weakening regulations of carbon pollution from power plants.

Here’s a look at what happened – and what might happen next.

Read More »

Also posted in Clean Air Act, Clean Power Plan, EPA litgation, News / Comments are closed

Washington and Wall Street must act now to protect Americans’ financial futures from unfolding climate change harms

This piece was co-authored by Stephanie Jones, Attorney, Climate Risk and Financial Regulations, and Gabe Malek, Project Manager, Investor Influence at EDF.

Climate change poses grave risks across society, including “more frequent and intense storms, wildfires, and heatwaves as well as more damaging droughts and more extensive ecosystem losses.” All people face climate harms, today: “this year alone, extreme weather has upended the U.S. economy and affected one in three Americans.” Policymakers must act with urgency to protect all Americans in the face of the unfolding climate crisis, and safeguarding peoples’ financial health and stability is urgent and paramount – no American should face financial jeopardy due to the harms climate change poses to their retirement account or ability to prudently manage personal and home finances.

Importantly, Washington and Wall Street are increasingly taking steps to recognize and manage climate risks. A number of important activities have taken shape in recently weeks, all designed to protect Americans’ financial futures. Measures range from proposed rules that would improve lifelong retirement savings plan selection to report findings that make transparent the harms climate change presents to the foundational stability of our banking system.

Eight of the most significant recent U.S. developments in the last few months of 2021 are highlighted below. It is crucial that we build upon these steps and take concrete, urgent action now to protect families, all people with bank accounts small and large, investors from main street to wall street, retirees, and all who depend on a financial system that is not destabilized by climate change.

Read More »

Also posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions / Read 2 Responses

New analysis: Americans across the country suffered from high ozone pollution levels of this summer

In addition to checking the temperature and the chance of rain before leaving home, many people have been forced to add a new indicator to their daily weather check – air quality.

Ground-level ozone pollution – more commonly known as smog – reached dangerous levels across the U.S. this summer. EDF’s new analysis found that almost every state experienced unhealthy levels of it, with millions of Americans exposed to dangerous air pollution.

The current national standard for ground-level ozone pollution is 70 parts per billion. As you can see from the maps above, 45 states had at least one day between March and August with levels that exceeded that limit.

However, there is a substantial and growing body of scientific evidence that shows serious health effects from ground-level ozone exposure at levels below the current standard. When the data is expanded to consider ground-level ozone levels greater than 60 parts per billion, which would be a health-based standard more consistent with the scientific evidence, the picture of summer ozone levels is even more concerning – all but one state (Hawaii) had at least one day with levels that exceeded that amount.

Our analysis also found:

  • The Western U.S. experienced the worst ozone levels in the country this summer. California, Arizona and Colorado experienced the most high-ozone days between March and August.
  • 343 counties recorded at least one high-ozone day. San Bernardino, California recorded the most exceedances – 112 high-ozone days between March and August, including almost every day in July and August.
  • More than 31 million people live in the 24 counties that had more than 20 high-ozone days between March and August, including Denver County in Colorado, Maricopa County in Arizona, and Los Angeles County in California.
  • If you use the more health-protective standard of 60 parts per billion, a majority of days between March and April had unhealthy ozone levels across the Western U.S.
  • In Arizona, under the 60 parts per billion standard, 89% of days between March and August had unhealthy ozone levels somewhere in the state.

There were many wildfires this summer and wildfire smoke is one of the sources that can contribute to elevated levels of ozone pollution. EPA establishes standards based on health science alone, and the agency has long had policies in place that allow states to account for truly exceptional events. Our analysis includes all recorded high ozone readings and does not exclude any high ozone days

Read More »

Also posted in Cities and states, Health, News, Smog / Comments are closed