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Environmental and social sustainability assessments of sustainable aviation fuels

At the moment, despite different technological pathways for the production of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) are qualified by ASTM and SAF produced by them can be certified, with relatively high blending percentages, the deployment of large supply chains is still scarce. The BIO4A project addressed this gap, by demonstrating a value chain not only including the industrial production of SAF, but also feedstock supply and logistics for fuel delivery.

BIO4A – Biofuels for Aviation, is a Horizon 2020 project launched in 2018 to demonstrate the first large industrial-scale production and use of sustainable aviation fuel in Europe, and to investigate the potential of recovery dry marginal land in Southern EU. The project that ended in May 2023 has been carried out by an international consortium of seven partners including industries, research organizations and SMEs. In further detail the consortium has been composed of the Renewable Energy Consortium for Research and Demonstration (Italy), SkyNRG B.V. (The Netherlands), CENER (National Renewable Energy Centre of Spain), ETA-Florence Renewable Energies (Italy), Camelina Company España S.L. (Spain), JRC Joint Research Centre European Commission (Belgium) and ENI spa (Italy).

More in detail, the goal of BIO4A has been to enable the large-scale pre-commercial production of ASTM Certified aviation biofuel from sustainable waste feedstock in the EU, with particular emphasis on developing production capacity, and investigating long-term opportunities to supply sustainable no-food lipids, through a long-term R&D work, for conversion in low-ILUC (indirect land use change) biofuels (as per REDII). In doing so, BIO4A has adopted a two-pronged approach that was maintained throughout its duration. One prong was the industrial demonstration component, and the other was the research and development work.

As part of Bio4A developments, on the one side, CENER has carried out the environmental assessment of the proposed value chain, which considers the conversion of lipid feedstocks, namely Used Cooking Oil (UCO), animal Tallow and Camelina Oil (CO), by ENI’s patented EcofiningTM process, based on the Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) technology. The study has followed the methodological approach for Life Cycle Assessment of biofuels described in the recast of the Renewable Energy Directive (REDII).

On the other side, CENER has studied the social potential impacts of the Bio4A project, by conducting the social sustainability assessment (SLCA) of the overall value chain. Analysing social impacts within the value chain is important in strengthening sustainability analyses. It allows to analyse social environments where improvement points can be identified. This evaluation is based on the Bio4A partners’ own experience in each of the stages of the value chain, and identifies the social impacts associated with each of the stages of the value chain and estimates their scope in terms of the stakeholder affected.

As for the environmental assessment, an extensive set of cases was analysed by assuming different locations, logistic options and agricultural protocols (particularly the application of different soil amendments) for camelina cultivation, a crop which is being developed as an intermediate crop and as a potential alternative for restoring degraded lands, as the ones in the EU Mediterranean region here considered. As a meaningful contribution of the work, calculations introduced the Esca term (emissions savings from improved agricultural management), included in REDII methodology, whose application has been limited up to now.

Encouraging results were observed for all the studied cases, for the calculated Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission savings were always >65%, as required by REDII for biofuels to be quantified for national renewable energy objectives. In particular, the study estimated 89% and 85% savings respectively for UCO and Tallow.

Camelina cases using biochar, compost and combi[1] as soil amendments for cultivationperformed even better, providing savings in the range of 107% – 128%. These were largely contributed by Esca and by the adoption of the degraded land bonus (eB), also indicated in REDII methodology. When the Esca and the eB contributions are not taken into consideration, the camelina cases -based on the experimental data obtained from BIO4A field trials in Spain and Italy- provide GHG emission savings ranging from 65% to 74%, depending on the country and cultivation scenario.

As for the social life cycle assessment, the impacts have been classified into different categories involving stakeholders (workers, the local community, value chain actors, consumers and society), which are affected by the value chain.  Linked to the stakeholder categories, are the impact subcategories that compromise socially significant themes or attributes such as health and safety, forced labour, equal opportunities, freedom of association, community engagement, employment, land rights, child labour or conflict zones, among others. These subcategories have been assessed by the use of impact indicators, of which inventory indicators link directly with the inventory of the product life cycle. Several indicators may be used to asses each of the subcategories. Of the 15 indicators analysed, in general terms, for all the partners and their respective indicators, the results were medium, low, and very low risk.

In summary, we can conclude that the Bio4A value chain and particularly, camelina as feedstock, cultivated with biochar, compost and combi as soil amendments, can be an excellent option providing a synergic positive effect by contributing to decarbonising the aviation sector and reverting soil degradation. In addition, the benefits that can be generated throughout the value chain can positively impact society, with the generation of jobs, growth of rural communities, and the environment of ecosystems, among others.

This work and the research leading to these results were undertaken as part of the project BIO4A – Advanced Sustainable Biofuels For Aviation. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under grant agreement No. 789562.

The content of this document is based on original work published by BIO4A partners RE-CORD, ENI, SkyNRG, CENER, Camelina Company España, JRC and ETA-Florence in the respective project deliverables.

[1] Combination of 15% biochar and compost.

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