KLM to Fly on 'Sustainable Aviation Fuel' Made From Cooking Oil

Public Domain KLM. KLM

They say it reduces CO2 emissions by 80 percent. Does it really?

UPDATE: See addendum at bottom. It probably does.

KLM is the oldest airline in the world still flying under its original Royal Dutch Airways name for a hundred years now. Like other airlines, they are trying to figure out how to cope with a future where we have to reduce our carbon footprint and where flight-shaming is becoming a thing. Now they are trying biofuels; Neste, a Finnish maker of renewable diesel and other fuels, is now supplying KLM with "sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)" made from used cooking oil, which will "reduce CO2 emissions by up to 80 percent compared to fossil kerosene." From the press release:

The quantity of SAF will be blended with fossil fuel and is entirely certified according to the conventional specification for aviation fuel (ASTM), meeting the same quality and safety requirements. The blend will be supplied to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and is being treated completely as a drop-in fuel using the existing conventional fuel infrastructure, pipeline, and storage and hydrant system. In this way, sustainable aviation fuel contributes to reducing CO2 emissions from flights taking off from Amsterdam through CO2 footprint reductions in the supply chain.

This is not your biofuel made from corn or soy, but is made from from renewable waste and residue raw materials. "KLM only sources sustainable aviation fuels based on waste and residue feedstocks that significantly reduce the CO2 footprint and do not have a negative impact on food production or the environment."

Over the lifecycle including the impact of logistics, sustainable aviation fuel has up to 80 percent smaller carbon footprint compared to fossil jet fuel. It is fully compatible with the existing jet engine technology and fuel distribution infrastructure when blended with fossil jet fuel.
Neste Corporation, Press Release, 10 December 2019 at 10 a.m. (EET)

© Neste Corporation, Press Release, 10 December 2019 at 10 a.m. (EET)

But this is the photo that Neste supplied with the press release: a big four-engine jet putting out a massive contrail. It graphically demonstrates that jet fuel, whether produced from petroleum or cooking fat, is still emitting water vapour, nitrogen oxide and other aerosols and causes radiative forcing. More importantly, it is still emitting Carbon Dioxide, just as much as if it was fossil jet fuel. It does not, it CAN not, reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent because it's jet fuel. It is reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, but does that really matter?

The KLM CEO says, “Using sustainable aviation fuel is currently one of the most effective ways to reduce CO2 emissions in the airline industry." But it is not reducing CO2 emissions if it is a drop-in jet fuel replacement; it is pumping out exactly the same amount of them. It may be simplistic of me, but I am not sure that it makes a difference to the atmosphere. CO2 is CO2 is CO2.

UPDATE: A reader makes a valid point in comments.

Lloyd, I'm afraid you're wrong this time. CO2 is CO2 but in this case, the right hand giveth and the left hand taketh away except in the other order. Corn pulled CO2 out of the atmosphere last year. This year planes put it back. In between we turned the corn into oil and cooked with it. But we would have done that anyway. Next we collect it and refine it and pump into a plane, though probably not that lovely DC-6 in photo. There are losses. It's not perfect. But it's not the same as pumping up out of the ground what amounts to ancient carbon and burning it.