Biofuels unlikely to cut carbon by more than 4 per cent by 2020

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Biofuel being made during Boeing project

Biofuels are unlikely to play a significant role in cutting carbon emissions for the airline industry, according to consulting firm ICF International.

The ICF states that total aviation carbon output over the period being forecast would only fall by up to 3.6 per cent with the use of biofuels. This figure is based on the US government’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimate that by 2020 biofuels will make up around six per cent of all aviation fuels. Applying the FAA’s six per cent assumption to ICF’s baseline carbon forecast means a carbon output cut of up to 3.6 per cent. This is because, while biofuels have lower carbon content than oil, the energy consumed in production reduces benefits from carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere during cultivation.

The report also says that such a scenario will require a significant coordinated effort to achieve because of a number of obstacles to widespread use of biofuels, some technical and some economic. 

Additional barriers include gaining the trust of airlines and regulators as safe alternatives to kerosene, the impact on engine maintenance, new handling methods and procedures for emergency response. So, the percentage reduction by 2020 is likely to be much smaller. 

The ICF prediction is in its white paper, Mind the carbon gap: an alternative outlook for aviation emissions. The firm says aviation has built up biofuels as a solution to emissions. “This focus [on biofuel] indicates an implicit recognition that even the most optimistic scenarios of efficiency improvements will be insufficient to meet the industry’s commitments to carbon neutral growth,” it says.

The paper also states that barring development of new engine technology, biofuels will constitute no more than half the total fuel onboard. This means biofuels may require a parallel fuelling infrastructure at airports to blend fuels in the right mix for each product. Biofuels cost at least $3 more per gallon than jet fuel, or a premium of $15,000 for a typical transcontinental flight. “Economically, biofuels may simply be too expensive for airlines to embrace on a wide scale,” the paper says. It is also assuming that the US government is unlikely to subsidise biofuels. Aircraft maker Boeing has stated a subsidy would be needed (Air Cargo Week, 20 January 2014).

The ICF’s paper adds that market forces do not appear aligned to make biofuels cost competitive with kerosene in the medium term. It claims other industries are willing to pay higher prices for bio-based polymers, further reducing market incentives to process feedstock into biofuels. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) made a public commitment in 2009 to cut fuel related emissions. These targets include improving efficiency by 1.5 per cent per year until 2020 and capping total carbon output thereafter to offset growth in flying, which is forecast to be at around five per cent.

However, the ICF’s work suggests that this cap is a difficult target. The ICF says: “Unfortunately, biofuels are unlikely to close the full gap between projected aviation carbon and the industry’s targets.”

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