With emissions from air travel expected to grow by up to 700% by 2050, Angeli Mehta looks at innovation in biofuels and whether new voluntary rules for offsetting under Corsia will achieve lift-off

When Finnair asked its customers if they would be willing to pay to reduce the carbon footprint of their air travel, more than 70% of them said yes – but only if the money was to be used for environmental work. More than half thought supporting biofuels would be the most effective means.

So Finnair has just introduced Push for Change, a scheme, in partnership with Dutch renewable fuels company SkyNRG, whereby passengers are able to choose to pay for biofuel for a future flight with a donation of €10 for domestic flights, €20 for European flights and €65 for intercontinental. Alternatively, customers can choose to offset their emissions by investing in a project to enable people in Mozambique to use more efficient cookstoves, helping to avoid deforestation.

Finnair was amongst the first airlines to test renewable jet fuels, but says future use will depend on whether customers are willing to invest.

The public has a role to play – but you can’t make responsible choices if the thing you want to choose doesn’t exist

Such a direct measure certainly offers consumers a way out of the “flying dilemma”, where even the most environmentally conscious find ways to justify their flying habits.

Air travel has rapidly moved from a luxury to a right, and there seems no appetite amongst passengers to cut back. In fact, air travel is predicted to grow so quickly that by 2037 8.2 billion of us will be flying.

Direct emissions from aviation, which today account for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, are on course to grow by anywhere between 300% and 700% by 2050.

Finnair's scheme allows passengers to pay for future biofuel use or offset their emissions. (Credit: Finnair)

“The travelling public do have a role to play – but you can’t make responsible choices if the thing you want to choose doesn’t exist. It does need some stimulation from government,” says Damian McLoughlin, commercial development manager for renewable jet fuel at Neste, a Finnish oil products and renewable fuels company.

The UN aviation agency, ICAO, wants to see biofuels substituted in “significant” quantities by 2050, and a working group is thrashing out technical criteria. But its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia) is widely regarded as being a weak incentive for airlines to switch fuels. Offsets are cheap, and renewable jet fuel significantly more expensive than fossil-based kerosene.

The voluntary phase of Corsia began in January. Airlines flying from the 77 nations that have so far signed up agreed to start monitoring their emissions, to establish a baseline from 2020. From 2021, airlines will be required to offset any further growth in emissions: some 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions are expected to be offset between 2021 and 2035.

Corsia does force airlines to monitor their carbon – no other sub industry in tourism is doing that

However, a 2016 EU report concluded that offsetting has significant shortcomings, with fewer than 10% of UN projects assessed as delivering on their promises.

Significantly, neither China nor India has yet signed up, and Corsia alone isn’t tough enough to enable Europe to meet its 2030 commitments to cut aviation emissions.

Were Corsia accepted by the EU as the sole measure to tackle aviation emissions, that would mean only domestic flights would be covered by its emissions trading scheme. According to the NGO Transport & Environment, that would risk “creating a gap of 96.2 million tonnes CO2 – equivalent to Europe’s steel and iron emissions in 2015 – [compared] with the EU’s 2030 target [for airline emissions] due to its weak target and reliance on discredited offsetting”.

There seems little appetite among air passengers to cut back on travelling.  (Credit: 06photo/Shutterstock)

“However, Corsia does force airlines to monitor their carbon – no other sub industry in tourism is doing that … and [it] will raise awareness for customers,” says Susanne Becken, professor of sustainable tourism at Australia’s Griffith University.

“We need to see a meaningful shift; Corsia paired with national-level policies,” says Nik Pavlenko, fuels researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). Projects whereby renewable jet fuels are added at major airline hubs – whether airlines want them or not – are still at demonstration scale.

United Airline’s partnership with California-based AltAir Fuels (now World Energy) has seen it take over two million gallons of fuel since 2016. It also has a $30m investment in another California producer, Fulcrum BioEnergy, with a commitment to take one billion gallons of alternative fuels. Both deals are the largest to date.

Because it’s made from industrial waste gases, LanzaTech says its fuel has a 'fighting chance' of coming in on a par with fossil fuel prices

But Pavlenko expects the EU’s renewable energy directive will prompt member states to incorporate an incentive for aviation fuels.

The UK’s decision to include sustainable jet fuels under its Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) has been instrumental in getting the £4.9m investment needed to go ahead with detailed engineering planning on a plant that will convert solid waste, otherwise destined for landfill, into jet fuel. Renewable fuels company Velocys, alongside partners British Airways and Shell, expects to make a final investment decision next year. The 500,000-tonne plant would make enough fuel to power several of BA’s transatlantic routes. Over the next 20 years there’s likely to be upwards of 20m tonnes of waste available.

Neville Hargreaves, vice-president of waste-to-fuels at Velocys, describes the RTFO amendment as “the most important policy step on the transport side”. He adds: “On the waste side … the jury is still out, but we’re happy as long as people don’t prevent waste coming to us.”

Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson with LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren. (Credit: Virgin Atlantic)

Last October, Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to use LanzaTech’s breakthrough fuel, which is made from industrial waste gases. LanzaTech wants to build a 40-50m gallon jet-fuel plant in the UK, and both it and Velocys are competing for a share of a £20m government grant.

Craig Kreeger, Virgin Atlantic Airways’ recently retired chief executive, called on the UK government to commit to bringing the technology to the UK by extending biofuels incentives to carbon capture and utilisation technologies such as LanzaTech’s. With policy and investment support it could have three UK plants running by 2025. Because it’s made from industrial waste gases, LanzaTech says the fuel has a “fighting chance” of coming in on a par with current fossil fuel prices. Crucially, it would also provide some of the pull necessary to get investors interested in UK carbon-capture projects.

Because few airlines have been prepared to pay the price differential for biofuels, subsidy is crucial. This was amply demonstrated when a plan by Geneva airport to add 1% of renewable jet fuel made by Neste collapsed after the Swiss government pulled funding last year. (See Search for sustainable biofuels beset by turbulence)

The longer it takes for the industry to scale up, the more expensive renewable fuel will remain

“The key message is: the longer it takes for the industry to scale up, the more expensive it [renewable fuel] will remain,” says McLoughlin at Neste. He had expected the Geneva project to further that goal, but is optimistic that California’s extension of its Low Carbon Fuel Standard to include alternative aviation fuels will see increased demand this year from airlines.

Neste is working with other fuel suppliers and four airlines on San Francisco’s plan to develop the supply chain and infrastructure for renewable fuels at its international airport.

The ICCT estimates that some 223-225m tonnes of waste and residues are technically available to the EU, which could supply over 36m tonnes oil equivalent of liquid fuel each year. In 2016 alone, EU demand for jet fuel was 40.4m tonnes. But aviation will be competing with road transport for the same fuel stocks. Pavlenko suggests it’s generally cheaper to turn feedstock into road fuel because it requires less processing than jet fuel, and optimising facilities is less expensive.

ICAO wants to see biofuels significantly substituted by 2050. (Credit: Photo_works/Shutterstock)

“We will need every and all types of producers with different tech pathways to achieve scale – whether for ground or aviation fuel,” says McLoughlin.

To get aviation emissions down means significant capital expenditure for scale-up, and that requires security of long-term policy and guaranteed demand. “Alternative fuel deployment alone can’t be the answer, [while] improved efficiency can take a long time because of the lifetime of aircraft. Reducing the demand side could have the biggest impact,” suggests Pavlenko.

How that can be achieved, however, remains an unanswered question.

“Price is big moderator,” says New Zealand-based Becken. “Airlines jump up and down about anything that looks like a tax, and flights have become cheaper and cheaper, so flying is the cheapest form of transport in my part of the world.”

There has been no discernible impact on passenger numbers since the UK introduced air passenger duty in 1994

However sensitive airlines are, there has been no discernible impact on passenger numbers since the UK introduced air passenger duty in 1994. It has also increased the duty regularly since.

Airlines pay no fuel tax, and VAT in the EU is charged only on domestic flights. According to calculations by European campaign group Environment & Transport (E&T), levying 15% VAT on all EU flights would raise €17bn, while a kerosene tax levied at the same rate as minimum diesel taxes would raise another €9.5bn.

E&T suggests the funds could plug a post-Brexit budget hole, although others might suggest it could be invested in renewable fuels.

The idea of an individual carbon allowance was discussed in the UK 10 years ago, but the government concluded it wouldn’t be able to sell it to the public. Perhaps amid rising awareness of the urgency of climate change, the time may be ripe to revisit that idea.

Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability.  @AngeliMehta.

Jennifer Holgrem, CEO of LanzaTech will be one of over 100 speakers at Ethical Corporation’s Responsible Business Summit New York 18-19 March.

Main picture credit: Kichigin/Shutterstock

LanzaTech  Finnair  biofuels  SkyNRG  CORSIA  United Airlines  Velocys  RTFO  Virgin Atlantic  Neste 

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