By BETTINA WASSENER, The New York Times, October 9, 2011
The world’s airlines will carry 2.8 billion passengers and 46 million tons of freight this year. They will burn somewhere between 210 million and 220 million tons of fuel and generate 650 million tons of carbon emissions in the process.
Strong growth, particularly in Asia, will see to it that those numbers keep rising.
Add to that the fact that the price of fuel is likely to keep rising and that the pressure to reduce fuel emissions has never been higher, and what you get is a huge increase in recent years in the airline industry’s efforts to develop biofuels capable of powering aircraft.
The speed of the progress in recent years has been remarkable, leaving many of the airline and aviation executives who gathered in Hong Kong for a conference on aviation and the environment in late September shaking their heads in near disbelief.
“I have been amazed at how quickly we moved forward,” said Tony Tyler, the former chief executive of Cathay Pacific, who took the helm of the International Air Transport Association in July.
Just a few years ago, Mr. Tyler said, the concept of using biofuels to help power aircraft seemed “very pie-in-the-sky and futuristic.” Now, he said, biofuels are no longer just theory — they are a reality.
Less than half a decade has passed since a handful of carriers staged the first test flights using fuel derived from plants. At least six airlines, including KLM, Lufthansa and Finnair, have now used biofuel on flights carrying passengers. Many of the executives who attended the recent conference broadly agreed that significant amounts of biofuels could find their way into aircraft tanks during the course of the next decade.
This would help the airline industry achieve its goal of “carbon neutral” growth — in other words, of increasing the business but without increasing emissions — by 2020. Even more ambitious, the industry aims to halve emissions by 2050.
As airlines currently account for about 2 percent of all man-made carbon emissions, this is an important factor in the drive to reduce global emissions.
Much progress has already been made on fuel efficiency. Improved designs and materials mean that aircraft and engines today are 70 percent more fuel efficient than those built 40 years ago, said Mr. Tyler of International Air Transport.
But aviation efficiency can go only so far, so biofuels are a key building block in the drive to lower emissions.
“I believe that the most significant leap forward in the industry’s environmental performance in the coming years will be the commercial use of sustainable biofuels,” Mr. Tyler said.
Now, however, comes the other hard part: getting enough of the stuff to airlines, at a competitive price and without running into trouble on issues like land and water supply.
At present, aviation biofuels exist only in minuscule amounts and cost three to five times as much as conventional jet fuel, according to Paul Steele, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group, a nonprofit association that includes a wide range of aviation industry players. (The International Air Transport Association estimates that the airline industry’s total fuel bill will top $200 billion next year.)
The oil companies that supply carriers with traditional jet fuel have yet to embrace biofuels in a major way.
A host of small outfits, like Cosmo Biofuels in Malaysia, are working to develop jet fuel from various plant sources. But the process takes time and does not enjoy government support of the kind seen for biodiesel, which is used in cars.
“The technical issues are largely solved,” said Stephen Emmert, regional director of biofuel strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “What we need now as an industry is a sufficient, sustainable supply at commercially viable prices.”
Aviation biofuels, in other words, reached technical maturity surprisingly quickly, but commercially, the industry remains in its infancy.
Meanwhile, despite the logic in exploring less carbon-intensive sources of fuel, biofuels are not entirely uncontroversial.
An initial rush to produce fuels from edible crops like corn, sugar cane and palm oil was blamed for contributing to a spike in food prices. The demand for land on which to grow crops has intensified pressure both on agricultural land (to the potential detriment of farmers in poor nations) and on previously undeveloped areas (which could jeopardize existing natural habitats).
And there are concerns among some scientists that the potential for bioenergy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been overestimated .
The aviation sector insists that it is eager — and able — to minimize the effect its appetite for biofuel feedstocks will have.
Crucially, the industry is looking at developing aviation fuel not from palm oil and other so-called first-generation crops, but from plants like jatropha, an inedible weed that can grow in arid conditions, or from algae, which likewise do not encroach on arable land.
Some are also studying ways to develop fuel from municipal waste. The megacities of Asia could potentially supply millions of tons of organic waste material to convert into aviation fuel, said Mr. Steele of Air Transport Action Group.
In Abu Dhabi, where fresh water is a scarce and precious resource, the Masdar Institute, with support from Etihad Airways and Boeing, among others, is testing a seawater aquaculture system that could yield renewable biomass for use in aviation fuel.
Given the many complex political and resource pressures at play, the use of biofuels in aviation and other industries is unlikely ever to be free of controversy.
“We have to understand that the demand for biofuels will have an impact on resources such as fresh water — that the shift to biofuels may be stretching the planet’s capacity elsewhere,” said Eric Bohm, chief executive of the WWF, the conservation organization, in Hong Kong.
But the industry cannot afford not to look at alternatives to conventional fuels.
“Moving to biofuels is a step in the right direction,” Mr. Bohm said. “But the process has to be managed very carefully.”