green and sustainable business

NRDC airline scorecard ranks airline biofuel use

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NRDC aviation biofuel picHere’s the deal: air travel emissions pump more than 650 million metric tons of carbon pollution into the air each year – that’s equivalent to the pollution from 136 million cars. It’s not likely that airplanes will go away anytime soon, which makes the increased use of sustainable biofuels critical to reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.

According to a first-of-its-kind scorecard released earlier this month by the Natural Resources Defense Council, “the industry is making strides in adopting sustainable biofuels, with some airlines doing better than others as they incorporate these new fuels into their fleets. Air France/KLM is by far the leader of the pack.”

Debbie Hammel, senior resource specialist with NRDC’s Land & Wildlife Program and author of the scorecard, As the world rises to the challenge of curbing climate change and cutting carbon pollution, addressing air travel pollution has to be part of the mix. The aviation sector has been pretty proactive about this issue, and an industry-wide increase in the use of sustainably produced biofuels is definitely on the horizon.”

NRDC’s Aviation Biofuel Sustainability Scorecards evaluated airlines’ adoption of biofuels, focusing on the use of leading sustainability certification standards, participation in industry initiatives to promote sustainability certification, public commitments to sustainability certification in sourcing, and the monitoring and disclosure of important sustainability metrics.

The top-scoring carrier was Air France-KLM, followed by British Airways, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, and Alaska Airlines.

In the past five years, more than 40 commercial airlines around the world have flown as estimated 600,000 miles powered at least in part by biofuels. Lufthansa completed a study of the long-term effect of aviation biofuels on engines, noting no adverse impacts. KLM conducted 26 long-haul flights demonstrating it is possible to organize and coordinate a complex supply chain and fly regularly scheduled flights on aviation biofuel blends.

“It is crucial that the emerging aviation biofuel industry be built on a foundation of sustainability,” NRDC says. “Biofuels produced within a framework of sustainability criteria can provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. When produced in an unsustainable manner, they can cause severe damage to land, water, air quality, wildlife, and local communities and can even generate more greenhouse gases than their petroleum counterparts. In order to ensure that aviation biofuels deliver on their promise of long-term sustainability, the aviation industry must leverage its market power. Airlines must commit to robust sustainability standards in biofuel sourcing. This will incentivize upstream biofuel operators to pursue compliance and certification under prevailing sustainability standards.”

These market signals are critical in driving adoption of sustainable practices through the supply chain. Biofuel operators are making long-term design, employment, and operational decisions to optimize production for the requirements of their marketplace, and many are now focusing on aviation as a key market. Sending a clear signal that production must be compatible with sustainability standards and independently audited and verified through credible certification programs will cause operators to proactively build this into their planning and operations.

NRDC says that while members of the aviation sector have made some important progress to implement their sustainability commitments over the past year, “there are enormous opportunities to do more, particularly now that credible sustainability standards, such as those adopted by the RSB, are now fully operational in the marketplace:

  • “The airlines must now send clear market signals notifying current or potential suppliers of the importance of sustainability certification.
  • “If they are using biofuels, airlines should make a public commitment to source 100 percent certified-sustainable biofuel.
  • “The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG) and its 28 member airlines should make a firm commitment to use the certification framework created by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB).
  • “The airlines should strive for total transparency in the volumes, greenhouse gas profile, and sustainable certification used in aviation biofuel sourcing.
  • “Airlines that do not already have dedicated biofuels staff should hire specialists to focus on this fuel.”

NRDC says low-carbon fuels “will play a key role in the industry’s efforts to hold its carbon emissions steady after 2020 and cut net carbon emissions to half of the 2005 level by 2050. The scorecard and issue brief encourages airlines to send clear market signals notifying suppliers of the importance of sustainability certification – ideally using the certification framework created by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) – and make a public commitment to source 100 percent certified-sustainable biofuels.

“How airlines move forward is still up in the air,” Hammel says. “While some in the industry have made real progress in implementing sustainability commitments this past year, there’s more to do. The industry must commit to robust standards for sourcing these fuels to ensure that they’re truly sustainable in the long-term.”

 Image extracted from the NRDC issue brief.









Written by William DiBenedetto

16 February, 2015 at 5:28 am

One Response

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  1. Hello! Interesting post. I’ve blogged about biofuels in aviation myself, some months ago.

    I think there’s something else we need to consider, though: water vapour is a greenhouse gas as well. Even if you burn the cleanest, greenest biofuel, combustion is going to produce water, and stratospheric water vapour says ‘up’ for a long time. Contrails can act as nucleation triggers for larger clouds, too. If I remember rightly, NASA reported that 0.1% of all cloud cover is actually contrails… which means extra clouds we didn’t have before aviation.

    It’s still the best way to get around, but aviation will continue to cause climate change, even with biofuels. Unless you know otherwise: there has been talk about what atmospheric ice crystals do to the albedo of the planet, perhaps causing some part of the sun’s rays to be reflected back into space… but either way, it’s a poorly-understood mechanism, and that’s a bad way to go about geoengineering.

    I dunno. Anyway, I didn’t mean to write this much. Thanks for sharing – I will look forward to reading more.

    Richard Farr

    12 March, 2015 at 4:25 pm

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