Cleaner Skies are Friendlier Skies

NRDC just released its annual Aviation Biofuel Sustainability Scorecard, which rates individual airlines on sourcing sustainably produced biofuels.

For the 2016 scorecard, we surveyed 29 airlines. Airlines in the top category were: Air France/Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), British Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), South African Airways and United Airlines.

We received responses from 19 airlines – an improvement of two over last year’s responses. Because mergers among 2015 respondents reduced the overall number of airlines, the percentage response rate increased to 65.5 percent from last year’s 53.1 percent.

This year we grouped airlines into four categories: (1) Leading, (2) Advancing, (3) Basic, and (4) Nonresponsive. The categories were based on commitments to sustainable fuel supply chain development, sustainable fuel use, and monitoring and disclosure.

The full scorecard is available here.

Airlines are under unprecedented regulatory scrutiny in national and international climate policy arenas, and with good reason. The aviation industry now accounts for 2 percent of human-produced carbon dioxide. By 2050, this share is projected to grow to 3 percent – the fastest increase of any transportation sector.[1]

Fortunately, many in the industry – led by the airlines listed above – are taking steps to avoid such a steep increase. Airlines are designing more efficient aircraft, improving airspace management, and, perhaps most importantly, they are sourcing low-carbon fuels from non-petroleum sources. All three approaches will likely be required to meet the industry’s goals of achieving carbon-neutral growth starting in 2020 reducing emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2050.[2]

As our new scorecard makes it clear, if airlines are going to meet their carbon emission targets, new low-carbon fuel sourcing is essential. But these fuels must demonstrate reduced emissions across their entire life cycles – from production through use.

Critically, the industry must look beyond GHG reductions to include other sustainability concerns of low-carbon fuels, including adverse impacts on food security, land, water, air, wildlife, and local communities. First-generation biofuels such as corn ethanol and palm oil-based biodiesel have already been exposed as environmentally risky fuels whose production in the absence of adequate safeguards can have unintended negative consequences to sustainability.

Some airlines are taking these sustainability concerns seriously. For example, the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), with its 28 member airlines representing approximately one third of commercial aviation fuel demand, has adopted a set of environmental, economic, and social sustainability criteria. SAFUG members pledge to use sustainability criteria “consistent with and complementary to emerging internationally recognized standards such as those being developed by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB).”[3] Third-party sustainability certification standards, such as those of RSB, provide assurance of sustainable performance and the RSB is widely regarded as the gold standard among an emerging set of certification systems.

Since the aviation industry is leading the development of advanced biofuels, airlines’ market signals can play a critical role in driving adoption of sustainable practices throughout the supply chain. With 11 percent of global transportation fuel use and a 6 percent share of global oil consumption, aviation has market leverage that can drive development and adoption of comprehensively sustainable biofuels throughout the transportation sector.[4]

In turn, biofuel operators are making long-term design, employment, and operational decisions to optimize production for their marketplace, and many are now focusing on aviation as a key market. Sending clear signals that production must comply with independently audited sustainability standards, such as the RSB, will incentivize producers to proactively include this in their planning and operations.

Airlines deserve credit for their efforts to develop more sustainable fuels. By fortifying sustainability measures throughout their supply chains, airlines can help ensure the aviation biofuel sector grows in the most sustainable way possible, and that GHG emissions decline as the airline and advanced aviation biofuel industries expand.

Our scorecard concludes with the following recommendations:

  • Airlines should make public commitments to source only aviation biofuels that have been RSB-certified, and communicate this to fuel and feedstock producers.
  • Airlines that have not yet made a public commitment to using sustainable aviation biofuel – one that specifies volume, percentage, and timeline – should do so. Where possible, they should commit in all three areas.
  • Airlines that do not yet have a firm contract for delivery of RSB-certified biofuels should explore and secure a delivery contract at the earliest opportunity.
  • Airlines should strive for total transparency in aviation biofuel volumes, GHG emissions, and sustainability certification.
  • To meet the industry’s GHG emissions reduction goals, SAFUG and the International Air Transport Association should firmly commit to using the RSB certification framework.
  • All airlines should establish a clear policy that prohibits the purchase of fuels from coal and fossil natural gas.
  • Airlines should limit their use of forest-derived biomass feedstocks to those that will demonstrably reduce carbon emissions in the near term (compared with fossil fuels) and will not threaten natural forest ecosystems. Examples include sawmill residues including sawdust and waste wood chips that would otherwise quickly decompose.
  • Any biofuel credits under the ICAO’s GMBM should be based on validated life-cycle carbon performance. Credits should also account for ILUC and include sustainability requirements consistent with the RSB standard.

[1] U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Aviation and Climate Change: Aircraft Emissions Expected to Grow, but Technological and Operational Improvements and Governmental Policies Can Help Control Emissions,” Report to Congressional Committees GAO-09-554, U.S Governmental Accountability Office, June 2009, www.gao.gov/assets/300/290594.pdf.

[2] International Air Transportation Association (IATA), “Climate Change,” accessed April 5, 2016, www.iata.org/policy/environment/pages/climate-change.aspx.

[3] Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), “Our Commitment to Sustainable Options,” accessed April 5, 2016, www.safug.org/safug-pledge/.

[4] Global aviation usage, 5.4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (mboe/d); road use, 38 mboe/d; rail and domestic waterways, 1.9 mboe/d, marine bunker, 4.1 mboe/d. Ban, J., et al., 2015 World Oil Outlook, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, 2015, pp. 95, 96, 125; www.opec.org/opec_web/static_files_project/media/downloads/publications/....

About the Authors

Debbie Hammel

Deputy Director, Lands Division, Nature Program

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