Sustainable Biofuels Key to Reducing Aviation Carbon Emissions from Flights to the EU

The decision of the European Union last year to include aircraft operators in the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) has given a sense of urgency to the development of sustainable aviation biofuels. In 2013 operators will be required to surrender allowances equal to their carbon dioxide emissions in 2012. Allocated allowances will be capped at 97% of historical aviation emissions taken as an average of the base years 2004, 2005 and 2006. In the period 2013 through 2020, the cap declines to 95% of the historical aviation activity emissions.

Starting this year, regulated aircraft operators flying within or to Europe are required to monitor their carbon dioxide emissions. Monitoring data provided to the member state of the EU with regulatory authority over each aircraft operator will be used in 2011 to make applications for allowances under the EU ETS. Certain small aircraft, some commercial operators with a low volume of flights, and a number of defined categories of aircraft operators are exempted under the regulation.

Aircraft operators included in the regulation will be able to offset up to 15% of their emissions by submitting Certified Emission Reduction credits verified under the Clean Development Mechanism of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Emission Reduction Units from the Joint Implementation program of the UNFCCC also can be used to supplement allocated allowances.

However, the long-term growth trends in commercial aviation could result in limits on air travel to and within Europe if additional means for reducing aviation carbon dioxide emissions are not found. Already the industry is improving aircraft fuel efficiency in order to limit the impact of annual air traffic growth that is projected by the Air Transport Action Group to rise at 5% per year through 2050. And within Europe, greater use of high speed rail could shift some passenger traffic from airplanes to more fuel-efficient trains and therefore ease constraints imposed by the cap.

Improved efficiency is not the only answer the aviation industry has in mind. It is also pursuing “carbon neutral growth” by embracing biofuels called “synthetic paraffinic kerosene” (SPK). Bio-SPK can be made by refining oils derived from plants like Jatropha and Camelina, and from algae. Test flights by Air New Zealand, Japan Airlines and Continental Airlines have already demonstrated the performance of this new biofuel, and ASTM International and the UK Defence Standards Agency are working on fuel certification standards. Certification of a 50% blend of Bio-SPK with petroleum-based Jet A-1 fuel could be ready by the end of 2010.

Already the performance characteristics of Bio-SPK look promising. In early tests, Bio-SPK outperformed petroleum-based Jet A-1 on two key parameters, freezing point and energy density. The first is a key safety metric for the fuel, the second means that less fuel by volume is needed to deliver an equal payload over the same distance. With these kinds of results, the aviation industry has high hopes that Bio-SPK will help reduce carbon emissions while increasing the diversity of fuel supplies.

In embracing Bio-SPK, the aviation industry has also recognized the importance of demonstrating that the biofuels of the future are sustainably developed and deployed. To this end it participated in a multistakeholder consultation process, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB), hosted by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland). RSB published “Indicators of Compliance for the RSB Principles & Criteria” in December 2009. This document provides a variety of environmental, social and economic indicators applicable to the entire biofuel supply chain, from feedstock producers and processors to biofuel producers and blenders.

By embracing a rigorous standard for biofuel sustainability, the aviation industry is seeking to avoid the negative unintended consequences associated with corn-based ethanol. That product has been criticized for not reducing total life-cycle carbon dioxide emissions, soaking up scarce water supplies and diverting agricultural lands from food to fuel production, thus contributing to rises in food prices. Instead, the aviation industry intends to make meeting sustainability criteria a requirement for the new biofuel industry that is just beginning to take off.

© 2010 Futurepast: Inc.

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