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(SUZANNE PLUNKETT/REUTERS)
(SUZANNE PLUNKETT/REUTERS)

The Green Highway

Air travel is an environmental sore spot Add to ...

Covering a global industry like automotive is air travel dependent.

I won’t go into the awful details, but my annual carbon footprint is alarming. British Airways estimates in-flight carbon dioxide emission of a 10th of a kilogram per passenger, per kilometre. It’s more for short-haul flights. A 7-1/2 hour overseas flight means a passenger like yours truly can be responsible for kicking out about 700 kilograms of CO2 going one way.

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Aviation has been growing faster than any other source of greenhouse gases and flying now accounts for about 2 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, more in developed countries. The aviation industry wants to stop growth of carbon emissions by 2020 and hopes to achieve a 50 per cent decrease in carbon emissions only by 2050.

Jet fuels are kerosene-based and, given the energy density of kerosene, there really is no commercial alternative to the stuff at the moment. However, the U.S. military and a number of airline companies and airliner manufacturers have invested heavily in jet fuel made from plants – the oils provided by weedy camelina or jatropha shrubs or even algae.

A number of these biofuels have successfully passed trials over recent years. None of the tests I have seen involve mixing any more than 50 per cent biofuel into the regular kerosene-based stuff; also these biofuels are more expensive and not available in enough quantity or in enough places to be counted on by airlines. However, I have noticed two recent developments that suggest progress.

British Airways just signed a deal to purchase waste-to-biojet fuel produced by GreenSky from a facility under development in East London by U.S.-based Solena Fuels Corp. According to the purchase agreement, British Airways will buy fuel produced at the plant for the next 10 years, worth approximately $500-million. British Airways, like most of the industry, has a goal to reduce its net carbon emissions 50 per cent by 2050.

More than 150 jobs will be created to operate the facility, as well as an estimated 1,000 during construction. The partners aim to have the plant operational by 2015. Robert Do, president of Solena, said the agreement represents the largest advanced biofuel commitment ever made by an airline.

Another announcement last week came from KLM. A new KLM Royal Dutch Airlines route between Amsterdam and New York’s JFK will be the first to use RSB-certified fuel. RSB means Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels and it certified that the jet fuel produced will meet environmental and social safeguards.

The fuel is supplied by SkyNRG, the first worldwide biofuel operator to achieve the RSB certification for its entire supply chain. The company only uses sustainable feedstock for conversion into biofuel, and ensures that protected areas and wildlife habitats are unaffected by the growth of feedstock. This is then processed and refined into Jet A1 fuel for use in aircraft.

The climate-friendly value of these biofuels depends largely on how they are produced. It turns out that fuel made from palm oil is worse for greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere than jet fuel refined from petroleum because it involves clearing rainforest or peatland.

The short-term impact of biofuels for aviation is rather limited. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) thinks a 6 per cent share of sustainable second-generation biofuels is achievable by 2020. Boeing supports a target of 1 per cent of global aviation fuels by 2015. This all supports the industry’s goal of stopping growth of carbon emissions by 2020 and achieving a 50 per cent decrease in carbon emissions by 2050.

A better idea might be to have people like me travel less. It’s the growth of aviation that threatens to overwhelm cuts in greenhouse gas achieved elsewhere. Critics have also targeted frequent-flier programs like the one of which I am a top-level member.

International air travel results in yet more “free” air travel with the accumulation of points. The perk of frequent flier miles often leads to personal trips that would not be taken if the ticket had to be paid with personal funds. That’s a hard cycle to break. I, for one, hope the biofuels catch on quickly.

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