Up in the air

As countries continue to disagree over how to curb aircraft emissions, experts say only second-generation biofuels can help meet reduction targets. So what is the aviation industry doing about it? 


The aviation industry’s long-standing project of reducing its carbon footprint has hit another obstacle. After years of fruitless negotiation within the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN specialised agency of 191 member states, the EU’s move to include flights in its emissions trading scheme has resulted in an outcry from several non-EU states. The most prominent are economic powerhouses; China, India, Russia and America, with the latter now passing legislation to ensure its airlines remain untouched.

From a certain economic perspective, the protests are understandable. The EU legislation, approved in 2008 by the European Parliament and activated on 1 January this year, requires all flights going in and out of Europe to cover their CO2 emissions with tradable carbon allowances purchasable from the EU. Although 85 per cent of these will at first be free, they effectively force a €3-5 price hike per fare, creating imbalance in the global flight market. With the EU planning to scale back on free allowances, the costs could rise rapidly. And that is bad news for recession-hit economies.

Yet from a green perspective, the EU had little choice. With no global agreement reached within the ICAO – which would be the preferred solution for everyone – it has stood firm on its scheme, which it claims will save 183 million tonnes of CO2 each year by 2020. That is needed. Currently, aviation stands for three per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions, and the brunt comes from international flights. The EU predicts this figure to rise with 70 per cent by 2020 from 2005. Through the new legislation, it hopes airlines will invest in sustainable technology and that businesses will travel less and increase their use of video conferences.

In practice it’s not that simple. In December a group of American airlines challenged the EU through the European Court of Justice, arguing its legislation was illegal. They lost. In March, China temporarily blocked domestic airlines from buying planes from Airbus, the France-based manufacturer. Only last month, the US Senate unanimously passed a measure enabling its airlines to ignore the emission charges. With the EU insisting it will amend its legislation if nations adopt policies of similar gravity, the ICAO is under pressure to find a global agreement.


But whatever policy in agreed on, the industry needs the right technology to be able to combat its carbon footprint. Clean-tech for aircrafts and a more efficient traffic management system are being developed, but, with the rate at which CO2 emissions are rising, that alone won’t solve the problem. Renewable biofuels is the answer, experts say; sustainable petrol that can be blended with regular fuel – without the need for new aircrafts.

What kind of biofuels? The initial so-called ‘first generation’ type is being abandoned. Many argue its production, which depends on crops like corn, sugarcane and rapeseed, destructs forests and other habitats, thus harming the food industry. Besides, analysis suggests it is in fact equally harmful to the environment as regular fuel. The EU thinks so too; last month, the climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, suggested policy changes that would see all food-based biofuel production capped at five per cent of the EU transport fuel market. The industry, worth €20billion a year, is currently at four-point-five per cent.

The answer, it seems, is ‘second-generation’ biofuels; the type produced from non-food renewable sources. This is the field in which the industry is currently working; finding ways to turn such sources into fuel in an environmentally and commercially viable manner. Proposed solutions so far include algae farming, municipal solid waste, non-food crops like switchgrass, and even dried sewage turned into algae (few things are more renewable). While many of these methods are too expensive, their price could sink as the cost of regular oils and fuels rockets with the increasing global demand for aviation.


Already, the wheels are in motion. British Airways will this year start building a biofuel-from-waste plant in London, with a lookout to construct more should it prove successful. Lufthansa, the German airline, has teamed up with Australian biofuels company Algae.Tec to set up an algae plant. The US army has tried flying jets with a 50-50 mix of regular fuel and biofuel. Even Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, has invested in research of second-generation biomass feedstock, despite not running flights themselves. They realise that if airlines can’t afford fuel, they certainly won’t buy aircrafts.

And so while nations continue to limp towards an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions, technology required to make it work is being developed. As most climate experts agree, the rising cost of fuel makes biofuels the only viable long-term option. Airlines are starting to act upon it. Now, the world is waiting for the ICAO to do the same.

Photos: Christopher Elwell, Fcarucci, Gwoeii [all via Shutterstock.com].