Sustainable Aviation Fuels – The Journey Towards Sustainable Aviation

Middle East

In 2022, the aviation industry accounted for approximately 2% of global CO2 emissions and nearly 800Mt of carbon dioxide. Decarbonisation remains a major challenge for the aviation industry and  sustainable aviation fuels (“SAF”) and hydrogen (to be discussed at the COP28 Green Zone at the Global Sustainable Aviation Forum) are considered as important in reaching net-zero by 2050.

Concerning hydrogen, the two main propulsion methods are combustion and fuel cells. Combustion involves burning hydrogen instead of kerosene, in a modified gas turbine, while fuel cells involve electricity production from hydrogen and oxygen, to power an electric motor which then moves a propeller or duct fan. As for SAF, it is a liquid fuel produced from feedstock, including waste oil, fats, and non-food crops. It can also be produced from blue hydrogen, whereby carbon is captured directly from the air, therefore preventing the emission of CO2. See our article on hydrogen here.

In Europe, production capacity and demand for SAF is still at an early stage, and in 2020, it accounted for less than 0.05% of total jet fuel demand. As for the roll out of hydrogen, this has also been gradual in Europe, and it is estimated that €300bn worth of investment is needed to stimulate green aviation. In April this year, the European Union (“EU”) approved an agreement which set targets requiring aviation fuel suppliers to ensure that a minimum share of SAF is included in all fuel provided to aircraft operators at EU airports from 2025. The new targets mandate a gradual increase in SAF production to 2% of all aviation fuel produced by 2025, with plans to raise the target to 6% by 2030, 20% by 2035, and 70% by 2050.

In the Middle East and North Africa (“MENA”) region, developments are also being made to utilise these alternatives. Earlier this year, Emirates Airlines was the first carrier in the region to operate a flight exclusively with SAF. Emirates and Shell Aviation also came to an agreement, for the latter to provide the former with more than 300,000 gallons of blended SAF. Further, Masdar (Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company) and Boeing signed a Memorandum of Understanding whereby the two companies seek to support the development and adoption of SAF policies in the UAE and beyond. The two companies will also explore advancing SAF accounting principles to avoid geographical barriers as it scales. In addition, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company's Ruwais refinery recently received certification for SAF production, becoming the first company in the Middle East that can supply the aviation sector with SAF.

In Saudi Arabia, the aircraft lessor, AviLease, said it aims to bundle SAF with aircraft leases and is in talks with stakeholders in the Kingdom.  Concerning hydrogen usage, the low-budget carrier Wizz Air announced a partnership with Airbus to develop a hydrogen-powered aircraft. Furthermore, ZeroAvia and Masdar have partnered to explore hydrogen aviation fuel and its related infrastructure.


Development in hydrogen-powered aviation and SAF is still nascent in MENA, but there is currently more of a concerted effort to use ‘drop-in’ SAF. An advantage of ‘drop-in’ SAF is that it can be blended with conventional jet fuel meaning it can be used with existing aircraft engine technology and transport facilities, whilst reducing CO2 emissions by up to 80% compared to conventional fuel. However, there are also challenges as the availability of SAF is limited and government policy and incentives need to be more forthcoming in its scaling and deployment across the MENA region. Egypt has been touted as a potential regional hub for SAF production. SAF production accords with Egypt’s 2030 vision and state-owned airline, EgyptAir, has committed to using two percent of SAF for all its flights by the start of 2025.

As for hydrogen, its utility provides reasons to be optimistic. For instance, it is multi-dimensional and, therefore, likely to penetrate other industries. This could increase the development of fuel cells and storage systems, and promote downstream infrastructure and reduce production costs. This benefits the aviation industry because the research and development costs and infrastructure costs can be shared with other industries. However, the technical characteristics of hydrogen make it best suited to regional or short-range trips, so it is likely that long-haul air travel will remain based on liquid hydrocarbons for a few decades. In addition, aircraft design will need to meet changing certification requirements. Hydrogen technology may not be quite ready for widespread use in the aviation industry yet, but it has captured the attention of aviation industry leaders in achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.  

Article co-authored by Abbas Yusuf , Trainee Solicitor at CMS.