March 29, 2014

Biofuels for more eco-friendly flights

Air Bus plane.
© Air Bus

by Marcela Torres

Air travel has broadly been identified as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and an important factor in climate change issues. This raises questions as to the implications of increasing costs of fuel and energy in the future and the need for tourism to be seen in the wider context of environment, resources and mobilities if it is ever to become sustainable.

Although some say planes only contribute between 2 and 3 percent of global emissions, airlines are aware of the criticism and have been tackling the problem for several years. The results? Last month, Boeing performed the first-ever transatlantic crossing of a commercial jetliner using renewable, biologically derived fuel. And this week, Lufthansa and Airbus launched the world’s first daily passenger flights using sustainable biofuel.

But the road to sustainable air travel has not been always been easy or voluntary. When the European Union adopted the Directive to include aviation in its Emissions Trading Scheme in January 2009 many airlines complained that it would hamper their operations in the region. How does emissions trading work? Passengers and companies contribute to some conservation project to offset their carbon emissions, which are sold on a carbon market.

Some airlines such as Qantas, Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic, and Continental voluntarily created their own carbon offset programs to allow passengers to reduce their environmental footprint when flying even before any regulations were passed. They were certainly pioneers in the field, but questions quickly were raised about how much should tourists pay per ton of avoided carbon dioxide and about the need to favor reduction of emissions instead of offsetting schemes.

Many expected science and technology to play an important role. Tourists see scientists as key actors in providing up to date information to allow government officials to make the right decisions, while the industry relies on technology to solve the problem of carbon dioxide emissions without reducing flights.

The one big truth is that airplane travel is here to stay and that the search for biofuels to replace fossil fuels is a positive step in the right direction. Some view this progress with skepticism and criticize that the trials by Boeing and Airbus only use a percentage of biofuels in combination with kerosene. Others warn against the amount of water that will be required to irrigate crops used to produce biofuel and whether or not the increasing need for biofuels will motivate more deforestation to grow crops.

It’s a problem difficult to solve. But the fact that the air travel industry is making efforts to actually reduce emissions instead of just offsetting them is a good sign that times are changing and sustainable tourism may be possible after all.

This entry was originally posted by the author on July 22, 2011.

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