Aviation industry takes flight on biofuels path

The aviation industry has made reducing carbon emissions and moving away from fossil fuels key strategic priorities.

A number of airlines are now entering the biofuel marketplace, working to source, develop and invest in biofuel supplies. This is a significant step in the right direction, especially since an effort to promote unconventional fossil fuels like coal-to-liquids, or CTL, and tar sands, which, without expensive controls, produce nearly double the carbon pollution as conventional fuel and are associated with significant negative environmental impacts, would surely damage brand value and undermine corporate stewardship.

But not all biofuels are created equal. Responsibly produced biofuels have the potential to offer a low-carbon and broadly sustainable alternative to conventional jet fuels. But poorly sourced biofuels can likewise damage brand value once their environmental impacts become clear. The aviation industry’s purchasing power and ability to impact the biofuel supply chain implies a special responsibility to use sustainable biofuels and rigorous sustainability certification to verify those biofuels as such.

To assess the current state of aviation biofuel sustainability certification, and to support the use of certification in the aviation fuel supply chain, the Natural Resources Defense Council has created its inaugural Aviation Biofuel Sustainability Survey. The survey provides analysis focused on airlines that have used, or are making public claims of plans to use, biofuels in their operations, and evaluates them on their actions to use and promote sustainably produced biofuels.

Our survey looked at five key areas of airline activity related to the use and development of sustainably certified biofuels:

1. Membership in sustainability standards organizations or other relevant groups working to promote sustainability certification in aviation biofuel development.
    
2. Public commitments to the use of sustainability certification in biofuel sourcing.
    
3. Disclosure of biofuel use, sustainable biofuel use and the percentage of sustainable-certified biofuels used relative to total biofuel use.
    
4. Monitoring and disclosure of the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions profile of the biofuels sourced.

5. Actions taken to determine the indirect land use change, or ILUC, impacts of the biofuels sourced and engagement in efforts to better understand, manage and avoid ILUC in biofuel production. Indirect land use change occurs, for example, when a crop used for biofuel displaces other crops, like soybeans. This in turn, causes farmers in other countries, such as Brazil, to cut down rainforests to grow soybeans and fill the demand. For more information see my colleague Nathanael Greene’s post here.

Next page: How aviation is moving forward