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South Africa has huge potential in Sustainable Aviation Fuel production

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has urged South Africa to leverage its experience, resources, and infrastructure to accelerate the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) production. This call was made during the IATA Wings of Change Focus Africa conference in Johannesburg, where government and industry officials convened.

Marie Owens Thomsen, IATA’s Senior Vice President for Sustainability and Chief Economist, emphasized South Africa’s potential to lead in SAF production within the region. She highlighted that besides supporting aviation’s decarbonization goals, SAF development could drive economic growth and should be a top priority for the new South African government. Thomsen stressed the opportunity to create new jobs and industries across agriculture, energy, and transportation, enhancing energy independence and combating poverty.

South Africa played a crucial role in the 2022 ICAO Assembly, where governments committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions in aviation by 2050. The importance of SAF in meeting this goal was underscored by ICAO’s CAAF/3 objective of a 5% global reduction in aviation carbon emissions by 2030. Thomsen emphasized that achieving these targets requires global collaboration, urging stakeholders—including states, development banks, industry, academia, and others—to unite in supporting countries with potential for SAF production.

Thomsen noted that airlines are eager consumers of SAF, as evidenced by the high demand relative to current production levels. However, she highlighted that production volumes remain insufficient to meet aviation needs. Thus, she emphasized the urgent need for countries like South Africa to embrace SAF production, citing it as a unique opportunity for economic development, energy transition, and sustainable air transportation.

IATA also pointed out several advantages identified in a study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that could benefit South Africa’s SAF production efforts:

Feedstock Potential: South Africa possesses abundant feedstocks, including sugarcane by-products and biomass from cleared invasive alien plants (IAPs). Utilizing these feedstocks would not compete with food production, aligning with sustainability frameworks outlined by ICAO.

Production Capacity: The WWF estimates South Africa could produce between 3.2 and 4.5 billion liters of SAF annually, exceeding domestic fuel demand (1.8 billion liters) and offering export opportunities, contingent upon supportive policies and potentially integrating green hydrogen capabilities.

Existing Infrastructure: South Africa’s established refinery infrastructure presents opportunities for brownfield investments, such as plant conversions or co-processing.

Experience and Expertise: With a history in synthetic fuel production, particularly the Fischer-Tropsch method, and robust academic and research institutions, South Africa is well-positioned to advance SAF technologies.

Geographic Advantage: Major airports like OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg and Cape Town International Airport enhance South Africa’s strategic position as a hub for regional and international flights.

To realize South Africa’s SAF potential, IATA recommended a strategic plan encompassing four critical areas:

Industrial Infrastructure: Accelerate SAF production capabilities using existing infrastructure (brownfield investments).

Collaboration: Foster partnerships between government, private sector, and international entities to pool resources and expertise.

R&D Incentives: Stimulate innovation through tax incentives, grants, and subsidies to drive down costs, increase production volumes, and diversify production methodologies.

Infrastructure Investment: Support the development of necessary infrastructure (greenfield projects), such as biorefineries and green hydrogen facilities, through incentives.

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