As major airlines across the world, as well as in South Africa, file for business rescue as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns in major tourist and business destinations, South Africa’s sugar industry is left wondering about what might have been. Or is it?

Bio-jet fuel has been named as one of the most promising by-products of sugarcane production and is high on the list of a raft of solutions tabled to rescue the South African sugar industry from collapse.

And, as the world’s aviation industries count the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic and ponder how to re-build their operations, it is certain it will want to fast track its announced conversion to the use of biofuels in a bid to meet emission-reducing targets.

In an international report released in 2019 it was estimated that 2 500 litres of biofuel could be produced from “engineered” sugarcane grown on 0.4ha of land. A Boeing 747 could fly for just more than 10 hours on biofuel from 22ha of land.

Another report titled Understanding the sustainable aviation biofuel potential in sub-Saharan Africa was released by the Worldwide Fund for Nature South Africa in collaboration with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis predicts that Sub-Saharan Africa could contribute anything between 30 and 90% of the world’s aviation biofuels by 2050. Could this be fast tracked?

Fast track

The collapse and shutdown of world travel just might be the opportunity so desperately needed by the country’s crisis-ridden sugar industry as environmental world bodies, activists and NGOs call for greener energy production while we learn to live with a disease for which there remains no cure.

Furthermore, if Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan is indeed serious when he says a new, more streamlined and fit-for-purpose airline might emerge from the ashes of the bankrupt South African Airways, is it possible we could see a regional airline plying regional routes fuelled by the country’s sugarcane crop? Well, why not?

In a report released in March and titled Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity: Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, the United Nations lists three steps it believes are fundamental to economic survival both during the pandemic and once a vaccine has hopefully been produced.

The first step, the report says, is to “mount the most robust and cooperative health response the world has ever seen”; the second, “to do everything possible to cushion the knock-on effects on millions of people’s lives, their livelihoods and the real economy”, and third, “to learn from the crisis and build back better. Had we been further advanced in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, we could better face this challenge – with stronger health systems, fewer people living in extreme poverty, less gender inequality, a healthier natural environment and more resilient societies”.

In short, and as we hear the ever-increasing call for a greener and more socio-equal exit from this pandemic, so too shall the production of biofuels and green energies become an imperative for countries wanting to participate in the global economy.

Vital role

More importantly, and of particular interest to South Africa’s cane growers, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) – widely acknowledged as the most credible international standard for biomaterial sustainability – believes our sugar industry could play a vital role in supporting the aviation industry to achieve its target of carbon neutral growth from 2020 and a 50% reduction on 2005 emissions levels by 2050.

Arianna Baldo, who leads RSB Business Development Activities in Africa and the Middle East, said making biofuel with sugarcane would not affect food security in South Africa as it would not involve the clearing of additional land, but rather the deviation of existing production and over-supply.

“It is however crucial for production to comply with a sustainability standard in order to ensure social and environmental stewardship,” Baldo said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, greenhouse gas emissions from global aviation had more than doubled over the past 20 years, accounting for the largest increase in emissions from transport. The industry accounted for 2% of all carbon dioxide emissions for 2016 – releasing 915 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Forecasts expected aviation to grow at least 5% every year towards 2030, with the demand for aviation fuel growing by approximately 1.5% to 3% a year.

However, with the global aircraft fleet all but grounded and airports mainly hollow, empty halls now, those numbers will probably no longer apply in the short term.

To support fuel producers and users to demonstrate a significant commitment to environmental and social sustainability, RSB recently announced it had submitted its application for recognition under the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) as a step towards assisting the industry as it “looks towards a green recovery from the global COVID-19 crisis”.

The scheme refers to the regulations as agreed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation which comes into effect in 2021 to reduce aviation greenhouse gas emissions.

Baldo said while there had been calls for airline bailouts to be linked to carbon reduction targets, these had yet to be approved.

“We have seen some environmental leadership in countries such as France, where the government has demanded that Air France must cut all routes that can be travelled by train before the airline can benefit from state funding. It is clear that this is an opportunity for public and private investors to shape the low carbon future of the aviation sector, such as demanding for Sustainable Aviation Fuel development that is certified by a reputable certification such as RSB,” she said.