Green Flights Take to the Air in 2011

From commercial airplanes from Virgin Atlantic to a U.S. Navy fighter jet, powering airplanes with biofuels has been long been a goal of the airline industry. Following test flights by a number of airlines and the U.S. Department of Defense, Lufthansa will be the first to offer a biofuel-powered commercial flight in April of 2011. Though a 50-50 mix of biofuels and jet fuel (traditional kerosene) will power only one of the aircraft’s engines, the German airline is achieving a considerable milestone. The program is a 6-month trial using the Hamburg-Frankfurt route to evaluate the wear and tear of biofuels on an aircraft engine. The program should reduce the airline’s carbon footprint by about 1,500 metric tons of CO2 in total (the annual emissions of about 300 cars) and cost about 6.6 million euros. The plane is no slouch either – an Airbus A321 has a seating capacity of 220 and a range of 3,000 miles.

One of the greatest advantages of using biofuels in airplanes is that you don’t need a vast refueling infrastructure – airplanes only refuel at the airport. In Lufthansa’s project, the plane in use will only refuel in Hamburg. While this presents a logistical challenge since the airline usually deploys each plane over several routes, it will make it easier to obtain the needed biofuel. Lufthansa will use a sustainable biofuel provider from Finland called Neste Oil. The Finnish company has a proprietary technology to produce biofuel from a mix of vegetable oils and waste animal fat sourced from the food industry.

The effort by Lufthansa is one of the key building blocks towards reducing aviation’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are expected to grow globally by 60 percent by 2030 as discussed in our 2009 report on Aviation and Marine Transportation. Back in October, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) agreed to a non-binding resolution on climate change, becoming the first United Nations Agency to “lead a sector in the establishment of a globally harmonized agreement for addressing its CO2 emissions.” The resolution builds on a 2007 agreement to improve fuel efficiency by 2 percent per year through 2050 and calls for establishing a CO2 standard for aircraft engines by 2013. As progress towards an agreement moves forward, there could be contention on how this fits with the European Union’s existing efforts to incorporate aviation emissions into their Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). The United States and other countries have balked at the idea of complying with the EU’s cap-and-trade system on aviation and may formally challenge the extension of emissions trading to flights from other nations to and from the EU. The efforts by Lufthansa and the ICAO illustrate that reducing GHGs requires work by both the public and private sectors. Lufthansa’s project will prove that an alternative to jet fuel exists today. Government action at the international level is critical because much of the growth in air traffic will be from international flights and it will be tricky to account for these emissions. In the United States, demand for international flights is expected to grow by 95 percent by 2030 versus only 27 percent for domestic flights.

Unless low-carbon fuels like biofuels can compete economically with jet fuel on the open market, some form of international agreement to account for emissions from international flights will be needed to coordinate the curbing of GHG emissions on a large scale. Thus, two big hurdles exist today. One is to bring the cost of an alternative to jet fuel to a level that is acceptable to meet customer demand for air travel. The second is accounting for GHG emissions from international flights. With Lufthansa and ICAO’s recent efforts, however, it is clear we’re making some progress on both fronts, but many issues remain in moving forward in any comprehensive manner that equitably addresses aviation sector emissions from all nations.

Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow