New Aviation Biofuels Report Ranks Industry Progress on Implementing Sustainability Commitments

NRDC has just released its second annual Aviation Biofuel Sustainability Scorecard, which rates individual airlines on their implementation of commitments to source sustainably produced biofuels.

We sent questionnaires to 32 airlines that have used biofuels or are publicly claiming they plan to use them, and received responses from 17. The top-scoring carriers on the Sustainability Scorecard were Air France/KLM, British Airways, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, and Alaska Airlines.

While many members of the aviation sector have made some important progress to implement their sustainability commitments over the past year, we believe there are enormous opportunities to do more, particularly now that credible sustainability standards - such as those adopted by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) - are now fully operational in the marketplace.

In order to ensure that aviation biofuels deliver on their promise of long-term sustainability, the aviation industry must leverage its market power. Airlines need to do more than commit to robust sustainability standards in biofuel sourcing - they must also implement these commitments through contracts with their suppliers. These market signals are critical in driving adoption of sustainable practices through the supply chain.

Biofuel operators are making long-term design, employment, and operational decisions to optimize production for the requirements of their marketplace, and many are now focusing on aviation as a key market. Sending a clear signal that production must be compatible with sustainability standards and independently audited and verified through credible certification programs such as the RSB will cause operators to proactively build this into their planning and operations. This will incentivize upstream biofuel operators to pursue compliance and certification.

As a newly released report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) reveals, turning plant matter into liquid fuel or electricity can be an environmentally risky and inefficient approach to meeting global energy demand. Increasing competition for land - for the production of food, feed, carbon storage and other ecosystem values - means that biofuel feedstocks will need to be sustainably produced from either waste (e.g., agricultural residues) or crops that do not compete with food production or other critical services (e.g., cover crops). The supply of these types of feestocks is likely to be limited.

Aviation has fewer alternatives for reducing its carbon emissions as compared to, for example, ground transportation, so it makes sense to prioritize the use of biofuels for this sector. With that said, it is crucial that the emerging aviation biofuel industry be built on a foundation of sustainability. Biofuels produced within a framework of sustainability criteria can provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. When produced in an unsustainable manner, they can cause severe damage to land, water, air quality, wildlife, and local communities and can even generate more greenhouse gases than their petroleum counterparts.

The analysis produced the following recommendations:

1. The airlines must now send clear market signals notifying current or potential suppliers of the importance of sustainability certification.

2. If they are using biofuels, airlines should make a public commitment to source 100 percent certified-sustainable biofuel.

3. Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group and its 28 member airlines should make a firm commitment to use the certification framework created by the RSB.

4. The airlines should strive for total transparency in the volumes, greenhouse gas profile, and sustainable certification used in aviation biofuel sourcing.

5. Airlines that do not already have dedicated biofuels staff should hire specialists to focus on this fuel.

While the aviation sector is poised to take actions that could reduce its carbon emissions and protect our land, water, air, and communities, making sure these positive outcomes materialize requires that the airlines adopt credible and independent sustainability certification for 100 percent of their biofuel sources. Airlines need to act now on this opportunity to help launch a new, truly sustainable aviation fuel industry.

About the Authors

Debbie Hammel

Director, Land Markets Initiative

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