Special Series: Women 'Green-Sports-Preneurs'

Fly Green Alliance Founder Sarah Wilkin

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Despite the global pandemic, Green-Sports entrepreneurship has been thriving. Much of the new businesses and nonprofits are being led by women. GreenSportsBlog is launching an occasional series, “Women Green-Sports-Preneurs,” to highlight the inspiring new ventures and the women behind them. 

To kick off the series, we talk with Sarah Wilkin, the British-born, Amsterdam-based founder of the Fly Green Alliance (FGA). Sarah’s startup is working to accelerate sustainable travel and accelerate the deployment of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), one of the top solutions to reduce carbon across mobility. Sports will play a key role.

 

 

GreenSportsBlog: Sarah, I am so glad to talk with you about Fly Green Alliance because, per Project Drawdown, mass acceptance of sustainable aviation fuels would provide a big boost to global carbon emissions reduction. How did you come to the world of low carbon aviation fuel?

Sarah Wilkin: It’s quite a story, Lew! But in short, I moved to Amsterdam from London and took a job as Digital Program Director in a hotel chain. I decided to support the CSR team in my spare time as I thought we should be doing more work here and I also really liked it. It got me introduced to a lot of sustainability work, the world of waste and science. And I also met a chemist who inspired me to turn our hotel waste into biofuels. 

 

Sarah Wilkin (Photo credit: Fly Green Alliance)

 

GSB: What about the environment and climate change; what was your interest there?

Sarah: Well, back then I’d call myself a lower-case “e” environmentalist. Climate change was definitely something I was getting more concerned about over time, especially as I have a friend working on the sustainable development goals at the UN. So, in 2018 I started to look into waste reduction in Amsterdam, the circular economy and impact projects. I worked on a project for The Student Hotel who had started a scholarship for students, and I thought who better to give this to than a sustainability student?  It was through that project that I met Dr. Shiju Raveendran of the University of Amsterdam. 

His research is in sustainable chemistry, specifically how to make aviation fuel from organic waste. I found out one of his projects was supporting the development of former Arsenal footballer Mathieu Flamini’s biochemical company, GF Biochemicals. Flamini was already a leader in green chemistry.

My work in food waste in Amsterdam had also gotten me in touch with restaurateurs who were looking to divert their waste. So, it made sense for us to connect and see how we could collaborate. 

GSB: Flamini should be the subject of a documentary — he, along with his business partner, built GF Biochemicals while he was playing top level football. Amazing! So, what did you do to get Fly Green Alliance, pardon the pun, off the ground?

Sarah: Ha! Well before we got going, I had to learn more — much more — about climate and biofuel production. So, in 2018 I studied and met a lot of people, listened to sustainability podcasts, attended events in Brussels, climate conferences and networked. We weren’t off the ground until six months after we got the grant. 

GSB: What did you learn?

Sarah: That we have major climate problems, we need to have a huge transition to green energy, that travel represents 25 percent of the global energy used and passenger numbers were growing fast which meant more emissions. That we have huge goals to meet to reduce those emissions but more flights were going to be taken, meaning even more emissions, so waste-to-fuel made a lot of sense to me, as it reduces emission by 80 percent over the life cycle. And because I also love to travel myself, it is a passion project and I think it’s really important for the future. 

As I dove into that topic, I learned that the technologies are basically there but that policies to promote their adoption largely weren’t in place. And consumer awareness was nowhere near where it needs to be. 

 

Dr. Shiju Raveendran (Photo credit: Jet Fuel From Waste)

 

GSB: In other words, there was lots of work to do…

Sarah: Yes! I also could see it wasn’t mainstream or popular to be into climate action and thought about how to change that. 

And so, I applied for a grant through Booking.com with the University of Amsterdam to do two things —

  1. Build a consortium to advance the science of low carbon aviation fuel, and,
  2. Develop Fly Green Alliance, build its awareness, work to develop a program to show what sustainable travel is, enter into partnerships which will help build demand for low carbon aviation fuel and work on the energy transition which we need to happen by 2030. 

GSB: That is quite an agenda. Did you get the grant?

Sarah: We got the grant for €150,000 in December 2018! And I launched FGA in May of 2019 as a social enterprise that develops projects to advance sustainable aviation fuel production and programs to advance sustainable travel adoption. Building green travel programs, as well as increasing public awareness of, and demand for sustainable aviation fuel, which was and is extremely low, are also crucial parts of our work.

GSB: How does sports fit in? And what was your involvement in sports before Fly Green Alliance, if any?

Sarah: I always knew the power of sport as a real driver for change and play sport a lot. My Dad has a downhill mountain bike event in Yorkshire which I work at so I love events and getting involved. I’ve also worked for adidas and volunteered with Favela United, an NGO working on football and social projects in Mozambique.  

UEFA invited me to Brussels to a green sports event back in 2019 where I met Tiberio Daddi, the Project Director from Life Tackle, eventually becoming a sustainability consultant with them, and then there I could bring together sport and sustainable travel.  

GSB: What is Life Tackle?

Sarah: It’s a European project, funded by the European Commission’s LIFE program, that aims at improving the environmental management of football matches and stadiums. It also looks to build awareness of environmental and climate issues in football. A consortium of FAs…

GSB: …FAs as in Football Associations, the governing bodies of football in a given country or region…

Sarah: Yes, so the Italian, Romanian and Swedish FAs started Life Tackle, along with academic institutions and some clubs. I became a sustainability consultant, which meant writing sustainability reports and developing partnerships and workshops.

GSB: Sounds like a great preparation for Fly Green Alliance. Before we get into what the Alliance does, especially around sports, talk a bit about sustainable aviation fuel. What is it? How available is it?

Sarah: Currently, sustainable aviation fuels, or SAF, are biofuels that are made from things like waste cooking oil, municipal solid waste, agricultural residues, and non-food supply crops. That latter point is very important.

They can be blended by up to 50 percent with kerosene but at the point around 10 percent. According to the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), SAF biofuels match traditional jet fuel molecule-by-molecule. The benefits can be massive: up to 80 percent C02 emissions reductions as compared to fossil fuels. So far, there have been more than 230,000 flights using up to a 10 percent biofuel blend according to data from the International Air Travel Association (IATA).

GSB: That is impressive but also it seems as though we’ve got a long way to go. What is holding back broader adoption and a greater percentage in the fuel mix than 10 percent?

Sarah: You’re right, Lew. About 100 million liters of SAF is being produced annually, accounting for only 0.1 percent of global jet fuel consumption. There are two big problems: SAF is three times as expensive as fossil aviation fuel and there is not enough supply to create economies of scale right now. 

GSB: What is being done to solve these problems? 

Sarah: Boeing in 2018 successfully tested a plane to fly with 100 percent SAF so the technology is there but the volumes are not. Policies and mandates are only in place in limited countries. Norway has a 0.5 percent SAF mandate, California, the UK, and the Netherlands all have incentive schemes to support the reduction in costs of SAF. 

GSB: So, we really are in early days on policy…

Sarah: The tech has been around for 10 years but the policy has only been developing in the last few years. The recent EU policy developments Fit for 55 are creating mechanisms to increase SAF production and investment. Low Carbon Fuel Standard in California has also been a pioneer in incentivising increased purchase of SAF through lowering the price for customers and is now rolling out to Oregon and Washington. 

GSB: Good to hear but we still are moving too slowly on policy. In my opinion, what we need is a meaningful global carbon pricing scheme that will make alternatives like SAF much more competitive. But that’s a complex topic and for another day! So, tell me about the more basic economics of SAF.

Sarah: It’s really a supply and demand dilemma. Once we get more “want”, we’ll get more supply as investors will see the business case. Before, it wasn’t there but we have moved on now and the pandemic and climate news has accelerated the desire to travel sustainably, especially as we’ve been grounded for so long.  

This year, Microsoft and United Airlines created their own alliances promoting the increased production and use of SAF including among corporate partners. It needed a global push and support to share the costs of fuel and the carbon responsibility with airlines and other mobility partners.  

We have created FGA, by name we are an alliance. We are part of a working group that is developing the sustainability standards for the business aviation sector and building development projects behind-the-scenes, working with investors, and growing new fuel projects. So, we’re working with investors on joining projects and connecting dots. 

FGA also expanded to do consultancy and build sustainable travel policies across mobility, as travel isn’t just about flying and we support a switch to rail where possible and other carbon reduction offsets. In time we will reduce carbon in sport and bring the price of the fuel down. 

GSB: How will FGA help sports organizations fly more sustainably and with their travel overall?

Sarah: We are working with FAs and talking with clubs about how we can help them on a lot of fronts: from calculating carbon emissions for air and other travel, to conducting workshops on how to reduce travel emissions to providing expertise on travel options with SAF fuels, offsets, digital solutions and more.

With Sport and Sustainability International (SandSI) we have created the first green-sports travel alliance and became their sustainable travel partner. 

On the fan engagement piece, we are very excited about a new partnership with Pledgeball, a UK-based charity that is all about environmentally and climate focused fan engagement programs for football clubs. Pledgeball will focus on the fan-focused programs, as well as developing cycling and mass transit programs FGA will bring a travel focus, education about sustainable fuels, mobility partners, technical knowledge, carbon measurement and partnerships in sport. 

 

 

GSB: Good luck — we can’t wait to see what results from the Fly Green Alliance’s partnerships with SandSI and Pledgeball!

Sarah: Thanks! A lot of the work is about behavioral change which is hard but it’s not impossible. There are early adopters now and there is more momentum online in sport and climate so there’s progress. We have worked hard to develop thought leadership on sustainable travel despite the pandemic challenges! It’s good to chat! I’m sure we’ll be in touch, Lew.

 


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