ICAO is finally moving on carbon offsetting rules, while leading airports and airlines like easyJet and BA are innovating in biofuels and electric aircraft to cut emissions

For all the efforts we make to cut CO2 emissions, our carbon budget can be blown simply by getting on a plane. The aviation industry accounts for around 12% of all transport related emissions and, with demand for air travel expected to double over the next 20 years, the world needs the aviation sector to shape up and cut its emissions.

As the UN’s latest emissions report highlights, we’re not nearly on course to meet the pledges made in Paris in 2015, which would prevent a dangerous rise in global temperature. But while all eyes have been on COP23 in Bonn this month to learn how the yawning gap between ambition and action on climate change is to be closed, the UN’s aviation agency has been meeting behind closed doors on the other side of the Atlantic in Montreal.

The ICAO has been discussing the rules that will underpin its forthcoming Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme (Corsia). Its stated intention is to make sure growth in aviation emissions is carbon-neutral after 2020, but many are worried its plans won’t deliver this. Ethical Corporation understands that, under pressure from developing nations, ICAO has ditched all but two of the sustainability criteria for aviation biofuels.

Discussions will continue next year, but environmental and labour protections seem to have been pushed aside. There is agreement that crops for biofuels can’t be grown on land deforested after 2009, and that biofuels should reduce emissions by at least 10% more than conventional fuels.

Financing is the hardest part: technology is available, feedstock is too, but it’s putting everything together

Separately, the EU has decided that international flights won’t now be brought into the EU emissions trading scheme until 2024, four years after the voluntary phase of the Corsia begins.

Progress in Corsia hinges on the quality of the offsets, and the certainty that there is no double-counting. Countries making pledges to cut emissions will have to know that the airline industry isn’t buying offsets that they’re including in their own calculations. Otherwise there will be a 3.3bn tonne black hole in the emissions budget, says Kelsey Perlman, policy officer for aviation and land use at Carbon Market Watch. 

Geneva airport is introducing bio-based jet fuel (credit: Geneva airport)

But some airlines and airports are not waiting for Corsia. From late next year, any flight leaving Geneva airport will get 1% of its jet fuel from bio-based sources, whether they like it or not. The airport's chief executive, Andre Schneider, says the airport and the Swiss government will pay the difference in cost between kerosene and the bio-based jet fuel. It’s about taking the lead, he says, and is a preparatory step for the introduction of Corsia. Schneider doubts there will be sufficient offsets for every airline to take that option. Indeed, “the cost of those may persuade them to pay the differential between kerosene and biofuel.”

As we reported in March there’s no shortage of research effort into sustainable jet fuels. In the past 10 years, according to industry body the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), 40,000 commercial flights powered with alternative fuels have taken off, and four global airports, Los Angeles, Stockholm, Bergen and Oslo, are supplying sustainable jet fuel in the regular fuel supply system.

By 2025 the industry wants to see 2% of all jet fuel being produced from sustainable sources

Brisbane is set to join Geneva in 2018. By 2025 the industry wants to see 2% of all jet fuel being produced from sustainable sources. So biofuels will have to be there in sufficient quantity to meet demand for 2025 and beyond.

“Naturally the biofuel community has to ramp up production, but [it’s] not just costs. In a refinery where you make bio-kerosene you can also build bio-diesel, and currently tax breaks are not there for bio-kerosene,” Schneider points out.

Discussing alternative fuels at a recent ATAG meeting, Jonathon Counsell, group head of sustainability at International Airlines Group, said that the biggest challenge for IAG in the UK is getting the right policy instruments in place.

Bruno Miller, managing director of fuels at US firm Fulcrum BioEnergy, which is developing biofuels from municipal waste, told ATAG members: “Financing is the hardest part: technology is available, feedstock is too, but it’s putting everything together. So eventually you need a business case for investment and for that you need private institutions to invest. But for that you need a stable policy environment. It’s important that policies for 10-15 years stay the same.”

Airbus and Siemens are testing the viability of hybrid electric vehicles (credit: Siemens)

In September, the UK government acknowledged that the aviation sector does need extra support to develop the fuels that will allow it to cut emissions. So for the first time sustainable jet fuel will be included under the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO), as an incentive to help achieve a target of 2.8% renewable fuels by 2032.

That proposed amendment has already led to the announcement of a joint venture between British Airways (part of IAG) and renewable fuels company Velocys to design plants that will convert household waste to jet fuel. The UK still sends some 15 million tonnes of waste to landfill each year, which also produces damaging emissions.

For the first time, our industry can envisage a future which isn’t wholly reliant on jet fuel, and its harmful CO2 and NOX emissions

That “won’t meet the UK’s entire jet fuel demand but will make a small and important contribution,” according to Neville Hargreaves, director of capital projects for Velocys in the UK. If all goes to plan, its first plant could be making jet fuel early in the 2020s, to deliver a 60% cut in greenhouse gas emissions and a 90% reduction in particulates on some BA transatlantic flights.

Producing jet fuel from household waste will be a huge advance, as there is still work to be done on agreeing the most sustainable routes for biofuels production that don’t change land use or supplant food. Geneva airport set tough criteria for its biofuels, being produced by Finnish group Neste. 

EasyJet believes the future is electric, at least for its short haul flights. It has teamed up with US start-up Wright Electric, whose chief engineer had already built an electric two-seater. The prototype is designed for speed, to push battery management and cooling systems to the extreme, much as Formula 1 innovations drove advances in car engine technology.

Geneva airport's biofuel is being supplied by Neste (credit: Neste)


When she announced the initiative, easyJet’s chief executive Carolyn McCall said: “For the first time, our industry can envisage a future which isn’t wholly reliant on jet fuel, and its harmful CO2 and NOX emissions, and where our noise footprint is significantly reduced for all flights and completely eliminated for many.”

Other industrial heavyweights are already devoting large resources to the campaign. Airbus and Siemens have pooled their expertise to try to prove the viability of hybrid electric engines by 2020. Siemens expects electric and hybrid electrical propulsion to become established in small planes within five years; the first aircraft to have a range of 1,000km and be able to carry 100 passengers are expected by 2030. Such propulsion systems could reduce fuel requirements and emissions by up to 50%, and cut operating costs and noise.

British Airways and renewable fuels company Velocys are designing plants that will convert household waste to jet fuel

To realise that ambition, new battery technology is needed. They are simply too heavy and too big at present to be used in aviation. Wright Electric’s founder, Jeffrey Engler, says: “We don’t have battery chemists. All we can do is work with battery companies and encourage them to focus on this area as a potential new market.” Wright Electric has already persuaded one company to do just that.

By working with easyJet, Engler says Wright Electric is learning about the nitty gritty of an airline business so the plane it ultimately builds will be commercially viable. Given predictions for soar away growth in the aviation sector, a lot is riding on its success.

Main image credit: Policas/Shutterstock Inc.
ICAO  CORSIA  electric planes  Fulcrum BioEnergy  ATAG  Neste  Wright Electric 

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