SPECIAL REPORT / A leading British aviation group Wednesday (16 July) called for immediate action to develop alternative jet fuels while seeking to skirt the controversy that has forced the European Union to reconsider biofuels targets for motor transport.

The Sustainable Aviation Council urges a mix of government regulatory action and private investment to produce alternatives to petroleum, saying biofuels could contribute to the EU’s climate policy goals, and fulfill the industry’s pledge to halve its carbon emissions by 2050.

“The most critical period in terms of developing alternative fuels is now,” Jonathon Counsell, chair of Sustainable Aviation and the head of environment at British Airways, said at the Farnborough International Airshow in England. The trade group released a paper - “Fuelling the future” - that says developing new sources for jet fuel “will create jobs, increase fuel security and establish the UK as a centre for sustainable aviation fuels”.

The group calls for some $6 billion (€4.4 billion) in investment over 15 years in the refining capacity of Britain alone, to produce liquid energy from agricultural waste, fermented sugars and other sources that could be mixed with conventional fuels.

In comments to EurActiv, council members also urged all EU governments to “level the playing field” by extending to the aviation industry incentives such as those now given to support alternative power for ground transport. They also urged additional emphasis on electric mobility, in order to free up refining capacity for alternative airplane fuels.

EU goes in reverse on biofuels

Although shown to lower carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions from engines, traditional biofuels are politically explosive. Biofuels have been blamed for food shortages and price spikes, deforestation and land degradation.

During a round of spiralling food prices in 2012, a top UN human rights official urged both the EU and United States to scrap their subsidies for biofuels, citing their impact on food supplies, particularly in developing nations.

Mounting criticism prompted the EU to reconsider its 10% biofuel target in ground transportation by 2020, although national energy ministers and the European Commission differ on how much to cut the target.

In a bid to skirt the food-versus-food debate, the Sustainable Aviation Council’s “Fuelling the Future” paper calls for the development of energy sources that do not compete with food supplies, contribute to tropical deforestation or harm biodiversity. It also seeks public input before developing a carbon-reduction “roadmap”.

“There is a lot of criticism around the issue of biofuels,” Counsell told journalists. “We are very aware and cognisant of that issue. This is a very live issue around the world, particularly here in the EU.”

Price, supply concerns

Airplane fuel prices have remained volatile since they hit historic peaks in 2008, with recent spike driven by unrest in Iraq and Libya. Airlines are pressuring their suppliers to rethink the need for improving the efficiency of current aircraft, as well as exploring the development of alternative fuels.

Jet fuel accounts for 40 to 50% of airline operating costs, up from single-digit figures a generation ago, industry officials say.

European carriers are particularly sensitive to fuel price spikes, because of narrower profit margins due to labour and fuel costs that are typically higher than the rest of the world. Throwing a bone to struggling airlines, EU leaders late last year shelved a planned import duty on jet fuel less than a month before it was to go into effect.

The Council said allowing the 4.7% tariff to take effect under a new duty scheme “would likely cause an increase in the price of jet fuel in the EU” at a time when European leaders were focused on economic growth and many European carriers were struggling to break even.

European carriers suffered the sharpest operating losses in the first quarter of 2014, losing $1.91 billion compared to an industry profit of $1.9 billion in North America, International Air Transportation Association figures show.

“Fuel efficiency is the Number One challenge,” Randy J. Tinseth, marketing vice president for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told EurActiv in an interview at Farnborough. “We need to do better at what we do by working on sustainable fuels and improving fuel economy.”

The aviation industry has used this week’s trade show in Farnborough to strut out new or revamped models of aircraft they claim are “greenest” ever.

“This is one of the very rare win-win situations,” Kevin Morris, aviation and environment manager at ADS, a trade group representing Britain’s aerospace industry, told EurActiv ahead of the Farnborough airshow. “It doesn’t matter for what reason you are reducing the fuel use by the aircraft or by any other mode of transport. At the end of the day that reduces the amount of carbon monoxide and other emissions into the atmosphere, so it has an environmental benefit as well.

“Just doing it for environmental reasons alone is the wrong way of looking at it. It helps with the bottom line itself,” said Morris, who is also on the board of the Sustainable Aviation Council in Britain that published the "Fuelling the Future” paper.

Alternatives: A drop in the tank

But sustainable fuels are a long way from addressing either environmental or economic concerns. Biofuels remain largely experimental in aviation, despite their growing use as additives in automotive fuels.

E4Tech, a Swiss energy consulting group, estimates that non-petroleum jet fuel will account for less than 1% of jet fuel by 2020 – the year the global aviation industry has committed to achieve carbon-neutral growth – and 3.1% under the most optimistic projections by 2030. Still, the group estimates that alternative fuels could reduce aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions by up to 24% by 2050. The industry wants to cut its emissions to half the 2005 levels by mid-century.