A few weeks ago, I found myself standing on the rocky beach of D’Hainaut Island, within Antarctica’s Mikkelsen Harbour, watching a couple of Gentoo penguins waddle into the nearby water. Their red-orange beaks and peach-colored feet stood out like colorful bursts against the stark backdrop of the White Continent—while giant chunks of blue ice, some taller than my waist—gave the whole place an otherworldly feel.
While seeing the world’s least-visited continent from the bow of a ship is a remarkable experience, the opportunity to step on land here is simply unforgettable. Of course, reaching the Antarctic peninsula is no easy task. Just getting to Ushuaia, the “world’s southernmost city” and our starting point for sailing the Drake Passage, was a journey in itself. In my case, it began with a 4.5-hour flight from San Francisco to Atlanta, Georgia, followed by another 11 hours of flight time to Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires. Then after resting a night, I joined other passengers (some coming as far as Australia) for one more wheels-up—this time a three-hour journey to Ushuaia. The amount of jet fuel required to even arrive at our expedition ship—a whole other beast—wasn’t lost on me. In fact, my growing carbon footprint has become an increasing concern of mine, the further and the more I travel.
There’s no doubt about it: travel can change lives. But it can also put a significant strain on our planet. Tourism is 8% of the world’s carbon emissions, with visitors from high-income countries like the U.S. being the leading source. Thankfully, there are an increasing number of ways to mitigate our environmental impact, and Nat Hab Adventures is at the forefront of sustainable travel, with a bevy of projects and partnerships that include investing in Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). This alternative fuel source for jets also happens to be leading the global aviation industry’s way toward a target of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050.
“We want to get people talking about things like sustainable aviation fuel now,” says Court Whelan, Nat Hab’s Chief Sustainability Officer, “so that they soon become household terms.”
What is Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)?
Sustainable aviation fuel is a biofuel made from renewable waste resources, such as cooking oil and food scraps, that can be used to power airplanes. Since its chemical and physical characteristics are almost identical to that of conventional jet fuel, the two can be safely blended together without having to modify airplane engines. How it works is easy: SAF lowers carbon emissions by releasing carbon dioxide in the air that’s been previously captured (meaning its production typically captures carbon that’s in the atmosphere already, rather than infiltrating the air with new volumes of CO2), and will be recaptured when more SAF is produced.
Unlike carbon offsetting, in which you pay someone else to cancel out carbon emissions elsewhere—for example, putting money toward reforesting lands in Peru or Madagascar to compensate for your own emissions from a flight or train ride—removing carbon from the environment through processes like producing alternative bio jet fuels is a more permanent storage solution.
However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has reported that in 2022, the use of sustainable aviation fuels was only 0.1 percent of the world’s total jet fuel consumption, a percentage experts have calculated by taking into account the fuel’s entire life cycle—everything from extracting the raw material to produce it in the first base to the fuel’s actual use—and then comparing it to similar emissions from fossil jet fuel. This means there’s much room for expansion, and Nat Hab has gotten in on the ground floor.
In fact, sustainable aviation fuel has an up to 80 percent lower carbon footprint than conventional jet fuel (as of now, current aviation fuel laws say jet fuel can be a combination of conventional jet fuel and up to 50% SAF, since the former contains necessary components that help prevent fuel leaks), an amount that can go a long way toward helping the planet in an industry that accounts for 2% of all global energy-related CO2 emissions.
Not only that, but SAF also significantly reduces particulate matter (soot), which is deemed toxic, and has a much lower sulfur content that protects air and water.
How Does SAF Work?
When a company or person purchases SAF, it doesn’t mean that particular biofuel will be used on the flight they’re boarding. Instead, their investment goes directly into supplying and delivering SAF into fuel systems at an airport close to where the biofuel is being produced (such as Norway’s Oslo Gardermoen Airport and LAX in Los Angeles). This way, transporting the fuel on land won’t lead to the production of even greater greenhouse gas emissions (the whole idea of the program is keeping transportation emissions low, both in the air and on the ground).
Whenever an SAF purchase is made, it’s then tracked, verified, and properly credited to the person or organization that paid for it. Completing most typical carbon removal orders typically takes one-to-two years.
Who’s Doing the Research?
Some of SAF’s most groundbreaking research is happening in Nat Hab’s own backyard, Colorado, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a U.S. Department of Energy research and development lab that is looking at a complete aviation ecosystem overhaul. This means not just permanently lowering the carbon intensity of flight in general but also improving what NREL calls “the carbon footprint, mobility, and resiliency of the entire aviation ecosystem.” It’s not an easy task, since the aviation industry is quite difficult to decarbonize. That’s because there’s still a lot to learn, and the current technology is expensive.
“For projects like these to become more feasible and affordable for the consumer,” says Whelan, “they need money. Nat Hab is always looking to move the needle or raise the bar,” which makes investing in SAF a no-brainer.
One of NREL’s main objectives is to meet environmental goals while continuing to be high-quality, safe, and efficient and simultaneously keeping costs intact. To do so, the lab is developing public and private partnerships with commercial airlines, airports, tech companies and governmental agencies in efforts to develop a set of industry standards for producing SAFs. Together, they’re looking into ways to convert everything from algae to agricultural residues (like corn husks and cobs) into finished biomass fuels.
Nat Hab’s SAF Commitment
Since 2022, Nat Hab has been investing in Tomorrow’s Air–Direct Air Capture, a carbon removal process that extracts CO2 directly from the atmosphere and stores it away permanently. Tomorrow’s Air works in partnership with the world’s leading producer of renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel, Neste, to reduce CO2 emissions through SAF. This means that whether you’re embarking on a Nat Hab Secluded Botswana Safari or a Classic Galapagos adventure, you’re also helping to shape the future of sustainable fuel use in both tourism and beyond.
“Obviously,” says Whelan, “we wouldn’t be able to make these sorts of investments if it weren’t for our Nat Hab travelers.”
Tomorrow’s Air also offers the option of purchasing SAF directly, so that we can still embody this Nat Hab ethos during the times we end up hitting the road rogue.