Airlines aim for 10% biofuels use by 2017
The international aviation industry is committed to achieving "carbon-neutral growth" by 2020, which would allow the sector to grow without increasing its carbon footprint.
In June 2009, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) backed the 2020 carbon-neutral growth target and pledged to improve fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5% per year.
The IATA has set a target of ramping up biofuels use to 10% of all consumption by 2017, saying that they have the potential to reduce the industry's footprint by up to 80%.
Biofuels were cleared for aviation use in June 2011 so long as they are blended with traditional jet fuel, and their use remains a novelty due to limited supply and high cost.
Several airlines have conducted biofuel test flights, which began with a February 2008 Virgin Airlines flight where one engine used fuel made from coconuts and Brazilian babassu nuts. In programmes launched in 2011 and 2012, Lufthansa used a mix of biofuel and conventional jet fuel on a few pilot flights in Europe and overseas.
Industry officials are urging governments to help lift supplies, much as policies in the EU and United States have created a flourishing market in plant-based oils for cars and lorries. The industry contends that sustainable fuels – when combined with aerodynamic design, efficient engines and improved air traffic handling – will reduce emissions even as passenger traffic grows.
Tony Tyler, director-general of the International Air Transport Association, says the oil derived from plants could reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by up to 80% in the decades ahead.
“They have already powered more than 1,500 commercial flights,” he told the trade group’s recent annual meeting in Beijing. “But to increase utilisation, costs need to come down and the supply needs to increase. That will only happen with government policies to de-risk investment, including setting global standards.”
The Air Transport Action Group, or ATAG, reported that biofuels were expected to account for less than 1% of the industry’s fuel supplies in 2012, rising to 30% by 2030 and 50% a decade later. The Geneva-based industry organisation, which promotes environmental sustainability, has urged governments to support research, plant development and refining capacity to achieve those targets.
For US planemaker Boeing, biofuels will be essential to achieving the airline's pledge for carbon-neutral growth. "Without biofuels we cannot get there. It is a vital contribution," said Antonio De Palmas, Boeing's president for EU and NATO relations.
The industry is so convinced of the merits of biofuels that it used the sustainable development conference in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 to stage a media event. Raymond Benjamin, heads of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, landed in the Brazilian city after having flown from his base in Montréal on airliners using biofuels.
“I am proud to have been able to serve as a symbolic passenger on this 'Flightpath to a Sustainable Future',” Benjamin said at the time, adding that bio-fuelled aircraft “are one of the many steps aviation is now taking in that direction.”
A drop-in replacement for kerosene
For the aviation sector, research into biofuels has centred on finding a blend that is compatible with aeroplanes. Part of the difficulty lies in selecting a type of fuel that can resist the extremely low temperatures encountered at high altitude.
Bill Glover, managing director for environmental strategy at Boeing, says dozens of samples of different types of fuel had to be tested before selecting one to use for a demonstration flight.
The test flight was conducted successfully in 2008 and was followed by others the following year, demonstrating that the technology is available now. "It is a drop-in solution for aviation, meaning that we don't need [to make] any change [to] the aircraft or engine to make them work. Typically, the flights operate with 50% biofuels and 50% fossil fuel," said De Palmas.
"In 2007, the R&D challenge was a central one. I think we can say now after more than three years that the product is there, the technology is there. Clearly we need more R&D to optimise the product to increase the energy coefficient of these biofuels, but the product is there," De Palmas said.
The big issue now for industry is whether biofuels can be deployed on a sufficiently large scale to make a difference to the airline sector's carbon emissions – without wrecking the environment.
UOP, a leading developer of refining processes, says first-generation biofuels such as ethanol must be seen as a ''stepping stone'' for the development of new, environmentally-friendly alternatives, such as fuel made from waste or "woody" materials (so-called second-generation biofuels). Other types of sustainable biofuels that are being explored include those made from algae (see EurActiv LinksDossier).
Carlos Cabrera, president and CEO of UOP, said in a 2007 interview with EurActiv that the capacity of biofuels to contribute to the fight against climate change will rely on the amounts that can be produced. ''That's the scale problem: the amount of oil that gets consumed and refined every day is greater than the potential of the existing agricultural sector to supply it."
The problem is that those amounts get even smaller when considering only biofuels that meet the EU's strict sustainability criteria (see below).
That’s why some in the airline industry are pushing for government policy shifts that would boost refining capacity and address global demand for aviation biofuel.
Alan H. Epstein, vice president for technology and the environment at aircraft engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, told EurActiv in a 2012 interview that when it comes to curtailing emissions, it makes better sense to have more electric cars and lorries than vehicles burning plant oil.
“The fundamental point is airplanes don’t have an option,” Epstein told EurActiv in an interview in Brussels.
“As Europe becomes greener for power generation, it makes more sense to think about electrification [for transportation],” he said. “In Europe, the automobile trips are shorter, the cars are smaller, so electrification may make even more sense than it does larger parts of North America.”
But the biggest challenge to biofuels is the threat they pose to the environment. Concerns have been raised in particular that increased production would result in massive deforestation and have severe implications for food security, as energy crops replace other land uses (so-called indirect land-use change).
To address these issues, the EU has put in place strict sustainability criteria and was preparing proposals in 2012 to address the impact of growing crops for biofuel. The 2009 Renewable Energy Directive obliges the bloc to ensure that biofuels offer at least 35% carbon emission savings compared to fossil fuels. The figure rises to 50% as of 2017 and 60% as of 2018.
On deforestation, the European Commission proposed a voluntary certification scheme for biofuels in June 2010. The Commission proposal explains what industry, governments or NGOs need to do to be labelled sustainable. These include standards to be met both in the EU and third countries, as well as independent auditing of the whole of the scheme's production chain.
Only those biofuels that meet the conditions set out in the proposal will count towards the renewable energy targets that each of the EU's 27 member states must reach by 2020.
However, the certification scheme is only voluntary and does not take into account the complex issue of indirect land use change.
In December 2010, the European Commission completed a two-year investigation into the issue. It recommended six months more of studies before announcing a new strategy in summer 2011 to complement existing measures to ensure sustainability of biofuels.
The EU executive said it will now consider four options, ranging from simply monitoring the situation to introducing new sustainability requirements or penalties for the least sustainable biofuels.
Meanwhile, environmental groups believe the EU's current green criteria are "weak" and cannot guarantee the sustainability of biofuels sold in Europe.
The United Nations Environment Programme has warned that even though burning plant-based fuels can produce significantly lower levels of carbon emissions, production and land clearing to make way for new crops “may reduce carbon-savings or even lead to an increase.”
Bill Hemmings, who monitors aviation policy in Brussels for the green NGO Transport and Environment, agrees.
Hemmings believes the aviation industry could be falling into the same trap as ground transportation in believing that biofuels are easy on the planet. Greenhouse gases emitted during production, he told EurActiv in June 2012, added to concerns over the impact of clearing land and tapping water and other resources needed to sustain fuel plants – especially in developing and emerging nations – may eventually make biofuels more pernicious than traditional fuels.
Such concerns have led Transport and Environment and other environmentalists to press the Commission to rethink its mandate for 10% biofuel use in ground transport by 2020.
“This huge industry is being built, not on a house of cards, but without a solid foundation and that foundation will shift seismically if indirect land-use change is properly addressed,” Hemmings said. “So why go and build another aviation mountain which is going to have the foundation shaken once this is sorted out.”
European Commission cautious, focuses on R&D
Despite ongoing efforts on sustainability schemes, the European Commission remains sceptical that biofuels can make a significant contribution to the EU's objectives on renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction.
"The Commission has at present no projections for biofuels in aviation by 2020," said Marlene Holzner, spokesperson for EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger. "In general they are not expected to constitute a major share to the renewable energy targets for 2020," she told EurActiv in e-mailed comments.
"The achievement of these [renewable energy] targets for 2020 does not depend on developments on the use of biofuel for aviation," Holzner further stressed.
In the longer term, biofuels in aviation may play a more important role, the Commission believes. In its 2011 White Paper on transport, the European Commission foresees a 40% of "sustainable low carbon fuels" in aviation by 2050.
Incentives will be key
In the meantime, the aviation sector is pushing for more government support. How fast "green biofuels" will come to markets on a large scale will ultimately depend on tax rebates or other forms of subsidies, industry sources claim.
As of 1 January 2012, the airline fell under the EU's Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), a carbon-trading system designed to reduce global warming gases. One possibility would be to allow airlines to claim a percentage of the biofuels that they bought for their operations on a global scale to be credited under the EU ETS.
This is the solution supported by the airline sector as the most practical: instead of trying to calculate how much biofuels are actually consumed in each flight, air carriers could claim the amount that fuel suppliers put in the airport tanks and get a credit based on that amount
"The EU ETS has to be implemented in a way that allows airlines to claim credits for the use of biofuels," said Boeing's De Palmas. "The way it is currently designed is not right, so we need some specific methodology for aviation."
Other solutions to cleaner flights
Aviation officials say they have to do something to break with the dependence on fossil fuel, both to meet passenger demand and reduce carbon emissions in an industry that accounts for the biggest growth in greenhouse gases. They say the price for that shift is high – today’s aviation biofuels cost as much as 10 times more than conventional fuels.
Despite a stagnant economic situation, air traffic is expected to double or even triple by 2020 worldwide. Concerns about energy supply and price vulnerability are other motivators – for instance, the 2011 revolution in Libya sent oil prices soaring despite weakened global demand, while an EU-US-backed oil embargo on Iran contributed to a spike in fuel prices in the summer of 2012.
Airlines are already taking steps to cut weight and improve efficiency. Each generation of aircraft being produced by leading manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing are more aerodynamic, lighter and more durable. On the ground, efforts to cut taxi time and delays at the gate save fuel and reduce emissions.
Meanwhile, industry figures show that new engine technology that is just coming onto the market is 16% more efficient than those in use today. That adds up in the long-term, Pratt & Whitney’s Epstein told EurActiv in the 2012 interview: “Efficiency is … economic return to the airline, so they have every incentive to absolutely minimise the amount of fuel burn and CO2 produced.”