Aviation biofuels: A pie in the sky?

Aviation biofuels_Picnik.jpg

This article is part of our special report Greening aviation.

Airlines have committed to ramping up their use of biofuels in the belief that they can contribute to achieving the sector's pledges on carbon-neutral growth. For 2050, the EU foresees 40% use of "sustainable low carbon fuels" in aviation.

In a bid to reduce its dependency on imported oil and tackle global warming, the EU has committed to raising the share of fuels from renewable sources in transport to 10% by 2020 – including biofuels, hydrogen and green electricity.

For the growing aviation industry, the switch to plant-based fuel is seen as not only environmentally smart, but a sensible financial move in an era or rising conventional fuel prices and worries about supply security.

Biofuel use in passenger aircraft is still a novelty, and 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 motor vehicles.

The industry contends that sustainable fuels will reduce emissions even as passenger traffic grows. The airline sector has committed to meet 10% of its overall fuel consumption with biofuels by 2017 – though the goal is ambitious given that it is to account for just 1% by 2015...

Meanwhile, more doubts are being raised about the environmental benefits of biofuels.

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.”

European conservation groups say the EU and European governments should wait to embrace aviation biofuels until there is proof of their environmental benefits.

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.

Scale issue

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.”

Environmental side-effects

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.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has pledged to achieve carbon neutral growth by 2020 and committed to meet 10% of its overall fuel consumption with sustainable biofuels by 2017 as a way of reducing its carbon emissions.

"Although complete solutions are not available today, building blocks, such as new materials and designs, alternative fuels, solar power and hydrogen fuel cells already exist," the IATA said.

According to the airline association, biofuels derived from biomass such as algae, jatropha and camelina "can reduce their carbon footprint 80% over their full lifecycle". If commercial aviation was using 6% biofuels by 2020, this would reduce its carbon footprint by 5%, IATA argues.

More efficient engines, aircraft and air traffic management can lower aviation fuel consumption and reduce carbon emissions, Randy TinsethBoeing's vice president for marketing, said in Brussels on 6 July. But over the long run, "We have to have biofuels to achieve reductions."

Following a pan-American flight using a streamlined air traffic management system and on board aircraft partly powered by biofuels, Airbus President Frabrice Brégier said on 19 June 2012: "To make this a day-to-day commercial reality, it requires now a political will to foster incentives to scale up the use of sustainable biofuels and accelerate modernisation of the air-traffic control management system. We need a clear endorsement by governments and all aviation stakeholders to venture beyond today's limitations."

For Antonio De Palmas, president for EU and NATO relations at US planemaker Boeing, biofuels will be essential to meet the sector's pledge for carbon-neutral growth. "Without biofuels we cannot get there. It is a vital contribution," he told EURACTIV in an interview. "New aircrafts, new engines and improved air traffic management will of course also play a role, but biofuels will play a significant part," he said.

For Boeing, the priority now is commercialisation and getting sufficient amounts of biomass to refine for the airline sector. Currently, most of the biomass is used for road transport, meaning competition is very tough. "Compared to road transport fuels, we are really, really small, which means that we have less attention from the big fuel suppliers from a market point of view," De Palmas declared.

He said this is where policymakers can come in – "to make sure we are not disadvantaged at least compared to other sectors when it comes to getting the right amount of biomass to refine biofuels".

EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said: "Aviation needs new green technologies and biofuels to reduce its impact on the environment." And a 2011 White Paper on Transport, published by Kallas's services, predicts that low-carbon fuels in aviation will reach 40% by 2050.

Moreover, a January 2011 report on future transport fuels, put together by a group of European experts mandated by the European Commission, said aviation biofuels should receive greater attention from policymakers. "Constraints on biofuel availability might require measures to prioritise the supply to the sectors most in need of high-energy density fuel," the report said, citing aviation and long-distance road transport among these.

Claudio Bertelli, Director of Biofuel Technology Sales at Honeywell’s UOP, deplored the Commission's lack of support for second-generation biofuels, which are typically used in aviation. "Regrettably, to date EU policies seem to build on the legacy of first-generation biofuels, e.g. by using them as a reference. This discourages investment in new industrial scale advanced biofuel plants."

European aircraft manufacturer Airbus also believes biofuels can make a difference. In collaboration with oil major Shell and engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce, Airbus performed a series of test flights in 2008, which utilised gas-to-liquid (GTL) kerosene. In the first half of 2011, Airbus is planning to launch the world's first passenger biofuel flights using a biofuel blend made from 50% hydro-processed esters and fatty acids.

The European planemaker is also actively involved in SWAFEA, a project led by the European Commission to research and develop sustainable alternative fuels in aviation.

The European Biofuels Technology Platform, a research group bringing together industry, academia and civil society, underlines the variety of feedstocks available for aviation biofuels. The group rules out hydrogen, arguing it would be too costly to adapt for aviation but points to fuels synthesised from gas (GTL), coal (CTL) and biomass as "the only realistic alternative for commercial air transport".

Adrian Bebb, who follows food and agriculture issues for Friends of the Earth Europe, an environmental NGO, does not believe biofuels can play a role in reducing emissions in the transport sector. "There is currently no evidence that the large scale use of biofuels reduce greenhouse gases. On the contrary, for biofuels used in road transport research shows that the EU's 10% target will increase emissions by up to 167%."

"With the air industry joining in then the situation will worsen dramatically and threaten forests in the tropics, increase land grabbing in places like Africa and make climate change worse." For him, "the best way to reduce carbon emissions is to reduce air travel, especially intra-EU flights."

"With the current biofuels available we see no potential for the aviation sector to reduce its carbon footprint," he said, stressing the need to enforce stringent sustainability criteria. 

Antonio De PalmasBoeing president for EU and NATO relations, underlined the need for a global approach when it comes to biofuels sustainability criteria. "We need harmonised standards that can be enforced across the world. With aviation biofuels, the biggest risk is to have a patchwork type of standard that would certainly inhibit the development of an aviation biofuels market in Europe and worldwide. If an airline has different standards for biofuels in Europe than in Australia or the US, then it cannot work."

Bill Hemmings, a campaigner at Transport and Environment, a green NGO, says environmentally-friendly biofuels are nowhere near commercial-scale production. "The aviation industry is making a lot of noise about biofuels but their availability in sufficient commercial quantities is many, many years away. In the meantime, 14 years of UN talks on curbing aviation emissions through global measures have achieved nothing and are currently stalled."

In addition, work to develop efficiency standards for new aircraft is dogged by industry footdragging, Hemmings adds, although efficiency "is exactly where the focus needs to be". "The fuel efficiency of new jets has hardly improved in 20 years, incredibly they are no more efficient than the propellor-engined planes of the 1950s."

On the sustainability issue, Hemmings says most biofuels available now cause more emissions than the fossil fuels they are supposed to replace, notably when indirect land use change (ILUC) is taken into account.

"The industry needs to show that its biofuel plans reduce overall CO2 emissions, don't cause other environmental and social problems and satisfy the same sustainability criteria as other biofuels. Currently aviation biofuels are not subject to any sustainability criteria. That must be addressed and indirect land use change factored in. In the meantime biofuels must not serve as a smokescreen to obscure the fact that urgent work is needed today to arrest aviation's growing climate footprint," he said.

  • March 2007: EU sets target to meet 10% of its transport fuel needs with biofuels by 2020. Target is subsequently broadened to include biofuels alongside other renewable energies, such as electricity produced from renewable sources like wind and solar.
  • 6 April 2009: EU wraps up climate and energy policy for 2020, including a new directive on renewable energy that sets criteria for sustainable use of biofuels.
  • 10 June 2010: Commission sets out voluntary certification scheme for biofuels.
  • 5 Dec. 2010: Deadline for all EU countries to comply with new Renewables Directive. Greenhouse gas savings from biofuels to reach minimum 35% compared with fossil fuels.
  • 28 Jan. 2011: Commission's 2011 transport White Paper sets target for "low-carbon sustainable fuels" in aviation to reach 40% by 2050.
  • First half 2011: EU-backed SWAFEA study to investigate feasibility and impact of alternative fuels in aviation.
  • 2 March 2011: European Commission publishes its Flightpath 2050: Europe's Vision for Aviation
  • Summer 2011: Commission strategy to tackle unwanted side-effects of biofuels production.
  • 1 Jan. 2012: Aviation sector starts trading CO2 credits under EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).
  • 2012: EU countries submit first report on national measures taken to respect sustainability criteria for biofuels.
  • By Dec. 2014: Commission review of greenhouse gas emission saving thresholds for biofuels, taking available technologies into account. 
  • 2017: Greenhouse gas savings from biofuels to reach minimum 50%.
  • 2017: Airline sector target to meet 10% of its fuel needs with sustainable biofuels.
  • 2018: Greenhouse gas savings from biofuels to reach minimum 60%. 
  • 2018: Commission renewable energy roadmap for post-2020 period. 
  • 2020: Transport sector mandated to source 10% of its energy needs from renewable energies, including sustainable biofuels and others.
  • By 2050: Low-carbon sustainable fuels in aviation to reach 40%.

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