Intelligent Energy

Airbus and Europe map jet biofuel goal

Airbus and Europe map jet biofuel goal

Posting in Energy

Aircraft maker, airlines and European Commission plan to add 2 million tons of sustainable fuel to aviation industry by 2020. Sounds impressive, but it's really just a drop in the barrel.

Ten Super Bowl victories would be a lot. The same number of peanuts would be, well, peanuts.

It’s in that numerical frame of mind that I’m underwhelmed by today’s joint announcement from Airbus and the European Commission of an aviation industry plan to use 2 million tons of biofuels by 2020.

Several fuel producers and European airlines including Air France-KLM also signed on to what they called the “Biofuel Flightpath.”

In a press release coinciding with the Paris Air Show they noted the plan, “Commits members to support and promote the production, storage and distribution of sustainably produced drop-in biofuels for use in aviation and to reach two million tonnes production and consumption by 2020.”

Global commercial aviation last year consumed 69 billion U.S. gallons of fuel, according to the Geneva-based International Air Transport Association (IATA). That converts to 217 million tons. (It’s also the equivalent to 649 megatonnes of CO2, IATA says).

With that backdrop, the Biofuel Flightpath target is pocket change. Two million tons in 2020 would represent less than 1% of 2010 consumption – 0.9% to be precise. Assuming aviation fuel consumption increases over the next decade, the biofuel percentage in 2020 would be even smaller.

Even from a European perspective the 2 million ton target is fractional. Europe accounted for 29% global aviation according to IATA, so, if it consumed 29% of aviation fuel, 2 million tons would only represent 3% of European jet fuel.

After a banner weekend in which two jets crossed the Atlantic using biofuel from Honeywell UOP – a Gulfstream G450 corporate jet (pictured above) and a Boeing 747-8 - today’s announcement seems droopy.

After all, biofuel companies like Finland’s Neste Oil already have the capacity to make 2 million tons.

However you slice and dice the 2020 figure, Friends of the Earth is not impressed. In a press release condemning biofuels, the environmental group noted that even 2 million tons “could require up to 3.5 million hectares, an area the size of Belgium, to grow, with serious environmental implications.”

Added FOE campaigner Robbie Blake, “Biofuels exacerbate poverty and hunger, drive land-grabbing and deforestation, push up food prices, and threaten to make climate change worse, not better. These new biofuel targets offer a convenient smokescreen for aviation industry expansion, but not the genuine emission reductions needed.”

FOE issued its statement a couple of days before today’s Airbus announcement, but that didn’t rain on the parade.

“Airbus supports the speeding up of the commercialisation of sustainable biofuels for use in aviation,” said Airbus CEO Tom Enders. “Our catalyst role is to bring together stakeholders such as advanced biofuel producers, airlines and lawmakers in value chains, in order to achieve this common goal more quickly. Only by working together can we meet our ambitious target to make air transportation truly sustainable,” said Tom Enders.

Let’s give this some credit. The “common goal” part of Enders’ statement is impressive. The industry is attempting to get behind biofuel in a cohesive, supply chain manner that could benefit an entire economic region – Europe – not to mention the planet’s carbon footprint.

Collaborative efforts among competitors often have difficulties, so we’ll see how this on plays out.

But Enders’ “ambitious” reference is an overstatement, unless he simply means that getting rivals to work together is a tall order.

There’s a lot of potential for jet biofuels. The “feedstock” does not have to come from edible plants, and it does not have to compete against vital, human-sustaining, food and water. It can come from animal fat- the stuff left over after the steaks leave the slaughterhouse. It can come from fish, micro-algae, wood chips, fish oil, discarded cooking oil. Honeywell UOP has used 42 different sources in its biofuels.

With all the usable waste in the world, creative, sustainable, eco-friendly “feedstock” should be achievable. Perhaps that’s the reason for the modesty of the Biofuel Flightpath. It might take until 2020 to find a sustainable, voluminous, renewable source of environmental friendly biofuel.

Photo: Honeywell

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure