Sustainable aviation: Increase in biofuel use ‘on the horizon’

A new report outlining the uptake of biofuels across the aviation industry claims that airlines are poised to shift up a gear on integrating sustainable biofuels into their operations.

The report – Aviation Biofuel Sustainability Scorecards – from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) evaluates airlines’ adoption of biofuels and their use of related certification standards, alongside the various sustainability initiatives being carried out by the companies.

During the past five years, 40 commercial airlines around the world have flown nearly 600,000 miles powered by biofuels. The top-scoring carriers on the Sustainability Scorecard are Air France-KLM, British Airways, United Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. However, of the 32 airlines who claim to use biofuels or have stated that they intend to, only 17 responded to the survey and have therefore been ranked.

“It’s great to see certain airlines becoming leaders in the use of sustainable biofuels,” said senior resource specialist with NRDC’s land & wildlife program and author of the scorecard Debbie Hammel. “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.” 

Sustainable certification

Air travel emits more than 650 million metric tons of carbon pollution each year – nearly the amount emitted of 136 million cars. The aviation industry has committed to hold its carbon emissions steady after 2020 and cut net carbon emissions to half of the 2005 level by 2050. Low-carbon fuels will have a key role to play in the industry’s efforts to meet these challenging targets.

In 2012, the the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials’ (RSB) certification was launched; developing a feedstock and technology-neutral global standard for biofuel sustainability, covering all aspects of the supply chain.

The NRDC has since identified that the aviation industry will have to affect changes within the growing supply chain of biofuels to eventually cut emissions. Suppliers need to be sent clear signals by airlines on the importance of third party sustainability certification, with airlines ideally committing to the certification framework created by the RSB. 

Robust standards

Airlines should also publicly commit to source 100% of biofuel from certified sustainable sources, and strive for total transparency in greenhouse gas profiles, and sustainable certification used in aviation biofuel sourcing, the NRDC says. 

“How airlines move forward is still up in the air,” added Hammel. “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.”

Last year, edie reported that British Airways partnered with US bioenergy firm Solena Fuels to start producing jet fuel made from waste destined for landfill in order to reduce its carbon emissions. In other moves towards sustainability, Finnair – which was incidentally ranked lowest on the NRDC’s Sustainability Scorecard – flew a demonstration flight to the UN Climate Summit in September powered in part by recycled cooking oil.

Lucinda Dann

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie