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Aviation Industry Takes Positive Step in Ensuring Biofuels Deliver on Promise of Sustainability

Debbie Hammel

Posted March 12, 2013

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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 (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, NRDC 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 (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’s post here.)

The survey also illuminates five key areas that the aviation industry should address moving forward:

  1. It is important that airlines send clear market signals now, notifying current or potential suppliers of the importance of sustainability certification. Failure to engage today and send clear signals risks exposure for all parties in the future once these supplies begin to scale.
  2. Airlines should make a public commitment to source 100% certified sustainable biofuel by 2015, or as soon as they initiate biofuel purchases if this occurs later than 2015. The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) is an international, multi-stakeholder standard organization that has developed a feedstock and technology neutral global standard for biofuel sustainability, covering all aspects of the supply chain. It is the only fully-qualified biofuels standard of the ISEAL Alliance, an international organization that helps to ensure best practices in standards organizations and certifications systems. As a global and robust standard, we believe it is the premier biofuels certification standard available in the market today and recommend its principal use in aviation biofuel sourcing.
  3. Airlines should be transparent about the volumes, greenhouse gas profile, and sustainable-certification used in aviation biofuel sourcing.
  4. Airlines intending to use biofuels should join the RSB and become directly engaged members. As large volume buyers with a direct stake in the quality and credibility of the sustainability standards applied to their fuel supply chains, airlines should be more directly engaged.
  5. The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG) member airlines have played a leadership role—and sent a positive market signal—by indicating their early support for the RSB; however, the RSB is now operational, generating certifications and winning government recognition. It is important for SAFUG members to now take the next logical step and commit to using RSB sustainability certification for their procurement of biofuels if they are to prompt real market development, solidify their leadership position, and reap the benefits of their early commitments.

The aviation biofuel industry is only just emerging, but the pace of activity toward commercializing these fuels is accelerating. Over just the last few days we’ve had announcements by SkyNRG regarding their recent RSB certification and KLM regarding their plans to use sustainable biofuel from SkyNRG on a regular basis from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. These flights will be running partially on used cooking oil—a waste product—that has been processed into fuel with the same characteristics as petroleum-based jet fuel. These are positive signs that the industry is moving in the right direction.

It’s more important than ever that we build on the actions of these early adopters.

As the marketplace develops, NRDC will publish airline names and their progress towards sourcing certified sustainable biofuels. Now is a critical time to examine development and sourcing activities and to help create a central role for sustainable practices and sustainability certification in the development of the industry. This will benefit all stakeholders, helping to ensure that biofuels deliver on their promise to become a viable and sustainable aviation fuel solution long-term.

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N LillyMar 12 2013 04:51 PM

I would like that report to give a rating for each airline so that I can make more informed consumer choices.

Ronald SteenblikMar 12 2013 07:06 PM

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Fuels made from used cooking oil (UCO) are sustainable only if one considers them in isolation. But the economic supply of used cooking oil and other waste oils and fats is very limited.

If aviation were the only customers competing for this source, fine. But they are not: they are competing for used cooking oil with producers of biodiesel for ground transport. The difference is, their definition of "sustainable" allows for fuels made from crops, which is what they turn to when the UCO is in short supply.

So, as long as there are government mandates driving ever-increasing use of "renewable" substitutes for diesel, the diversion of UCO to aviation in order to give it a green patina is simply adding fuel to the fire. Its effect at the margin is still going to be land-use change as long as biodiesel subsidies and mandates remain in place.

So, the smart thing would be for the aviation industry and its fuel suppliers to call for an end to biodiesel mandates and subsidies, right? One would think so, but they refuse to do that. My guess is that they are looking for subsidies (but not, of course, mandates) too.

Joanne IvancicMar 13 2013 04:29 PM

Mr. Steenblik, you are right about used cooking oil being in limited supply; however it is not the only sustainable feedstock for renewable fuels. See for information about a wide variety of potential feedstocks. For a slide show including a list of such options, see

Ronald SteenblikMar 13 2013 05:45 PM

@Ms. Ivancic. OK, I've gone through all 78 slides. No offense, but it's pretty much biofuels 101: big on promise, short on specifics.

Looking at page 7, I see a lot of feedstocks that I think many skeptics would regard as either by no means guaranteed to be sustainable (because they are or could very well require arable land), are currently very expensive to produce and transform, or are in ridiculously short supply. Some organization like yours calling a feedstock sustainable doesn't necessarily make it so.

For the latter, have you ever run the numbers on used coffee grounds? I have. The amount that could be practically collected and then processed for the oil is miniscule, and would involve a lot of energy just to go around and collecting it.

If you are going to list "options", no matter how non-viable, I have another one to suggest -- lipodiesel:

Ronald SteenblikMar 19 2013 04:35 AM

New study from the Oakland Institute:

Quoting from the conclusions:

"[R]eaching commercial aviation’s self–imposed target would leave only a fraction of biofuel behind for road transport, electricity, and heating. If aviation drives demand by pursuing this goal, and other sectors continue to generate demand as well, the combined rise in demand could create similar pressures on food supplies and sustainable land use.

"To meet current aviation needs, let alone future increases in demand, it would take 270 million hectares of jatropha,124 roughly equivalent to one-third of Australia or 25 times the amount expected to exist in 2015. Even a quarter of the required area would still be a Texas-sized chunk of land that could no longer grow food. Considering the sheer quantities of biofuel required compared [with] the amounts that currently exist, it is impossible to look into the future and guarantee that the drive to procure commercial quantities will not result in unsustainable, food security-threatening land grabs. There is already massive pressure on land resources in the developing world, with an estimated 83 million hectares being acquired between 2000 and 2010. Further investments in jatropha in the amounts required would undoubtedly aggravate this already worrying trend.

"Commercial aviation is eager to embrace biofuels not just as a way of cutting costs, but also as a way of appealing to sustainability-conscious consumers. But this could create problems of its own. If airlines begin to compete with each other over whose use of biofuel is more expansive, it could trigger a green race to the bottom as carriers strive to use more and more biofuel than their competitors.

"This, in turn, could lead to airlines into the arms of more widely available but also more roblematic feedstocks, with palm topping the list. These dangers all suggest that the entire discussion about sustainable aviation has been going in the wrong direction.

"Until now, the dominant discourse has been about how supply chains and technologies can be transformed so that current levels of consumption and future prospects for growth can be maintained. And yet, the consequences of pursuing aviation biofuels on a commercial level are as potentially threatening to human rights as the worst consequences of climate change. The airline industry, hungry for price stability and a green image, is in danger of creating an unprecedented demand for biofuel that could have catastrophic consequences for land rights, food security, and GHG emissions."

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