Can Biofuels Ramp Up to Cut Airline Emissions?

United Airlines is using 1 million gallons of biofuels at LAX    Photo: United Airlines, via Green Biz

Air travel, according to Green Biz, is a growing source of carbon emissions, accounting for 2% of all global carbon emissions, and it is expected to increase to 70% above its 2005 levels by 2020, despite the fact that airlines have been successfully working to improve fuel efficiency and put more passengers on planes to improve fuel efficiency per passenger.  The challenge is that passenger traffic is up so much that efficiency efforts can’t keep pace.  The European Commission has concluded that if aviation were a country, it would be in the top ten emitters — and it is striving to reach carbon neutrality by 2020.  Experts now believe that biofuels will have to be a big part of the answer, and the industry is beginning to realize it needs to scale up.

The Wall Street Journal examined how airlines are thinking about lowering their carbon footprint.  The Journal explained that,

  • Biofuels are made from plants or recycled waste and refined into jet fuel that can burn with the same energy in jet engines without any changes to the engines.
  • Biofuels, as they burn, do not emit less carbon than traditional jet fuel, but they are less carbon-intensive to produce.   Over their life cycle, plant-based biofuels create lower carbon emissions because as the plants grow they pull carbon out of the atmosphere.

There is a long way to go when it comes to airlines shifting to biofuels — only one airport in the U.S., Los Angeles International, has it on hand. The industry hopes it can get to 2% biofuel within the next six yearsUnited Airlines is leading U.S. carriers, working with two biofuel producers, and has locked into long term biofuel contracts in order to make it reasonably priced.  But for other airlines, the costs are high — almost costing 2 to 4 times as much per gallon as traditional jet fuel.   What is needed is more supply — and more producers — as airlines start to clamor for more.

Why This Matters:  The technology is not an issue any longer – it is there. Now It is just a question of creating supply and getting it to more airports.  That is where the government can make a big difference. Tax incentives and loan guarantees to encourage the development of the facilities needed to meet the potential demand could be a game changer. The Navy is a big buyer of biofuels too — thanks to former Secretary of Ray Mabus — and more DoD biofuels contracts could also help boost industry capacity.  Hopefully, biofuels for aviation will make the list of possible Green New Deal projects.

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