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

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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