Our view: How airlines recycle and reuse biofuel

With airline passengers growing by an average of 3.5% each year, airlines are exploring more environmentally friendly fuel and energy sources.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the number of airline passengers will top 8.2 billion in 2037 as numbers grow by 3.5% every year.

The world’s airlines consume over 5 million barrels of jet fuel every day. Each gallon of jet fuel creates 21.1 pounds of carbon dioxide [source: Energy Information Administration], adding more than 2 million tons a day to the atmosphere. By 2020, this type of fossil-fuel burning pollution is predicted to become 70% higher than in 2005. So, reducing or eliminating that carbon dioxide would be a good thing for everyone - wouldn’t it?

Turning to alternate travel modes isn’t a viable option; aviation is the only rapid worldwide transportation network, indispensable to business travel, trade and tourism. The air transport industry employs 63 million people globally and transports 35% of world trade by value.

Addressing the issue

That’s not to say that aviation is not addressing an impact forecast by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to account for 3% of global manmade CO2 emissions by 2050. Today’s aircraft are 80% more fuel-efficient than the jet aircraft in the 1950s, consuming an average 3.5 litres per passenger per 100km.

The Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 consume less than 3 litres per 100 passenger kilometres, comparing favourably with small family cars, despite aircraft having higher average occupancy.

Finding a solution

One solution is to transition electricity rather than jet fuel. Airbus and Boeing are both experimenting with electrically powered aircraft although it will be several years before they come into service. In the meantime, the focus is on switching to biofuels or Sustainable Air Fuels (SAF) instead.

Sustainable Air Fuel can be resources in the long-term in ways that preserve the ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources and does not contribute to climate change. The aviation industry’s reliance on fossil fuels makes it vulnerable to fluctuations in supply and price; SAF is an attractive alternative because production is not limited to locations where fossil fuels can be found.

The aviation industry prefers the term SAF because biofuels are generally fuels produced from biological resources, whereas fuel can be produced from other, non-biological resources; SAF is also referred to as renewable aviation fuel, renewable jet fuel, alternative fuel, biojet fuel, and sustainable alternative fuel.

Barriers the industry is facing

One of the problems is that, although the cost of SAF is falling, it remains expensive at $16 per gallon compared to the average $2.50 airlines who pay per gallon for conventional jet fuel. Research has shown that the target price is achievable, and that airlines could be willing to pay a 50 cents premium per gallon to reap the benefits of more energy per unit volume offered by SAF, enabling a plane to fly farther on a tank of the same size.

Although airlines have a financial incentive to reduce their fuel costs, they face no meaningful penalties for increasing their carbon footprints. The European Commission watered-down their rules for penalising airlines that exceed emission limits, looking instead to the United Nations and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to set targets and plans to cut emissions. They haven’t.

Biofuel initiatives

It’s not all bad news though. Virgin Atlantic plans to regularly use fuel derived from the waste gases of steel mills, whilst British Airways wants to convert household waste into jet fuel. United has promised to buy one million gallons of biofuel per year. It needs four billion gallons of fuel for its fleet. Back in 2015, United invested $30 million in Fulcrum BioEnergy, a plant with the capacity to produce 10 million gallons of biofuel annually from household rubbish.

Other carriers to invest in biofuel technology or purchase agreements include Cathay Pacific, Southwest Airlines and Qantas.

Governmental policies

Further impetus is coming from the world’s governments. Sweden – whose average aviation emissions are five times higher than the worldwide average - is considering forcing airlines to use biofuels.

Admittedly, nations have more control over domestic policy than international, although the number of national policy mechanisms to facilitate SAF consumption is gathering pace. The United States, the European Union, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Norway have all established policies supporting the use of aviation biofuels.

More plans in motion

Airlines are working hard to reduce their emissions. EasyJet has announced it will halve emissions per passenger kilometre by 2020. Air France KLM has set out to become Europe's most environmentally conscious carrier. In 2008 the airline partnered with the World Wildlife Fund, producing a strategy for tackling carbon emissions through fleet renewal, operational efficiency, the introduction of biofuel, and offsetting.

Air France KLM has reduced fossil fuel consumption by investing in Boeing 787-9s aircraft. The Dreamliner’s fuel efficient engines produce 20% less emissions than the planes they replaced.

Carbon Offsetting Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA)

Ultimately, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), due to be introduced in 2021, will be the conduit for aviation to meet its decarbonisation targets through SAF consumption and the purchase of carbon offsets, depending on the cost per tonne of CO2 emissions mitigated.

So, what will this mean for the traveller? Unless manufacturers can bring the cost of biofuels down to $2.50 – 3.00 per gallon, air fares will rise. The investment in research and development will have to be recouped; it is estimated that by 2030, the implementation of biofuels could add as much as $27 to the price of a long-haul flight.

Unfortunately, history shows that replacing one major energy source with another globally can take half a century or more.