As we address climate change challenges, the transport sector is increasingly poses difficulties, in large part because of its dependence on fossil fuels and in part because of the reluctance to use fiscal instruments to reduce emissions. John Vida writes an important article in The Guardian explaining that with biofuel potential limited and emissions rising, the need for industry to act is urgent. Vidal argues that hopes rest on a global UN carbon offset scheme to be negotiated at the ICAO summit this week – but critics remain unconvinced.
Can the aviation industry finally clean up its emissions?
When a South Africa Airways scheduled flight flew from Johannesburg to Cape Town last month, it carried nearly 300 passengers.
Neither the passengers or the pilots would have noticed any difference between that flight and any other.
But instead of the usual petroleum-based jet fuel, the plane was burning thousands of litres of a clear liquid derived from the oil of nicotine-free tobacco plants grown by farmers on acres of under-used land in the country’s Limpopo province.
Boeing, KLM, South African Airways, the Dutch government and others who partnered in the trial were cock-a-hoop with the results, which came as part of something called Project Solaris
It appeared that the fuel was not only efficient, but it was also more or less “sustainable”, because it did not take up farmland needed to grow food or lead to deforestation or ecological problems.
“It showed that a low-carbon aviation biofuel could be be grown that will not affect the environment and could reward farmers,” said Joost Van Lier, a director of South African Sunchem biofuel development, one of the project’s partners.
The tobacco fuel used was much more expensive than regular jet fuel, but because many airlines have committed to reducing CO2 emissions and substituting biofuels for some of their jet fuel by 2020, Project Solaris hopes to ramp up the acreage of tobacco grown to eventually produce millions of litres of the fuel in other southern African countries such as Malawi.
So far, there have been around 2,500 successful flights fuelled by biofuels. In March, United Airlines became the first US airline to use biofuel for regularly scheduled commercial flights from Los Angeles airport, and in June Alaska Airlines flew commercial flights using biofuel based on isobutanol produced from corn.
“Oslo airport now supplies airlines with alternative fuels for regular daily flights. Los Angeles is following and we expect John F Kennedy and other New York airports to stream from 2019,” said Michael Gill, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group, a coalition of aviation industry companies.
But despite successful tests and trials with different crops and waste streams, is there any hope in the forseeable future of aviation biofuels taking off on the scale needed to make even the slightest dent in the 300bn litres of jet fuel used worldwide every year? Worldwide, flights produced nearly 800m tonnes of CO2 in 2015, or up to 5% of all CO2 emissions.
“No credible scenarios exist for large-scale production of biofuels at present,” said Carlos Calvo Ambel, an energy analyst with Brussels-based watchdog group Transport & Environment. “So far, only a handful of companies produce renewable jet fuel on a commercial scale, and a single airport , Oslo, is set up to provide it.”
International aviation and shipping werenot mentioned in the Paris agreement, so it is unclear how their rapidly growing emissions are to be addressed. But the need for the industry to adopt a global scheme is seen as urgent if there is any hope of meeting the Paris agreement’s aspiration of holding temperature rises to 1.5C. As it is, the current industry projections expect aviation emissions to quadruple, potentially to account for 22% of global emissions by 2050.
Instead of relying on biofuels, governments are pinning their hopes on a UN global carbon offset scheme. This is to be negotiated this week in Montreal when 191 governments meet for the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) summit. A draft scheme is backed by US, Canada, Mexico, EU countries including the UK, and Singapore.
According to Transport & Environment, the US wants the new deal to cover as many countries as possible. “Its strategy has been to weaken the agreement’s environmental effectiveness so as to attract more states. China is pursuing a similar strategy, and it has yet to commit itself to signing up,” it said.
But there are grave reservations among NGOs that an offset scheme, which could see other industrial sectors cutting emissions to allow aviation to continue growing, is not ambitious enough and may not even work.
The proposal in the draft text released earlier this month defines a voluntary “pilot and implementation” period from 2021-27 after which countries would have to join in.
“One of the discussions in Montreal will be whether to include Redd [Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation] offsets [offsets based on avoiding deforestation] in ICAO’s offsetting scheme. As a way of addressing climate change, offsetting flying against the carbon stored in forests would be insane,” says Chris Lang, editor of Redd Monitor which has analysed UN proposals to reduce forestry emissions with a similar offset scheme.
“Not only would such a scheme allow the aviation sector to continue expanding and to continue burning fossil fuels, it would rely on carbon being stored in forests. Yet as climate change worsens, the risk of these forests burning and returning the carbon to the atmosphere is increasing,” he said.
The offsetting scheme, which hopes to stabilise aviation emissions at 2020 levels, is strongly defended by Michael Gill, director of the Aviation Transport Action Group (ATAG), an industry coalition.
“Offsetting is not a new concept,” he says. “Indeed, a large number of airlines already offer offsetting to passengers on a voluntary basis. What the industry does need is certainty, with a clear set of metrics defined before the scheme commences and consistently applied throughout its lifetime.”
Alexandre de Juniac, director general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), said: “I am optimistic that we are on the brink of a historic agreement—a first for an industry sector at the global level. The aviation industry would have preferred a more ambitious timeline than is currently outlined.”
Critics are not convinced. The International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA), the only civil society body accredited to observe the aviation proceedings, has strong reservations about the proposed market-based scheme because it would rely on a system of “voluntary, unguaranteed participation with weak environmental safeguards”.
“The new proposed text would allow nations participating … to opt out with only six months’ notice, raising serious concerns about the durability of the programme,” said the ICSA in a letter to EU commissioners.
The coalition also fears that if the offsets used to achieve the goal of the UN scheme are also credited to other climate goals, emissions will increase while countries and airlines appear to meet their pledges.
Instead they want to see ambitious states and regions allowed to go further in reducing their emissions and clear language introduced to avoid double counting.
The environmental coalition prefers an expansion of the EU emissions trading system (ETS), which controversially included aviation for 10 months in 2012. The scheme involved the EU imposing a cap on carbon dioxide emissions for all planes arriving or departing from EU airports, while allowing airlines to buy and sell “pollution credits” , rewarding low carbon-emitting aviation.
But the EU froze the scheme in November 2012 after the ICAO said it would take global action on emissions from planes.
“The EU stopped the clock on its own ETS to give ICAO time to develop an environmentally meaningful measure, not a voluntary scheme which postpones serious action for a decade or more. Europe should be proud of setting the global benchmark, and never replace it with something inferior that is open to bogus offset programmes,” said Andrew Murphy, aviation policy officer at Transport & Environment.