Thu 21 March 2013 – Although the entry of airlines into the biofuel marketplace is a significant step in the right direction, the sustainability of this development is of critical importance, says the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The US environmental group argues that the aviation industry has a responsibility to use biofuels that are certified as sustainable because the sector’s buying power has the potential to reshape the supply chain and avoid the use of poorly sourced biofuels that drive deforestation and food insecurity. To assess airlines’ commitment to sustainability, the NRDC has just released its inaugural survey that provides analysis focused on airlines that have used, or say they are planning to use, biofuels in their operations. Despite the sector’s pledge of support and recognition of the internationally recognised Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) standard, NRDC concludes that airlines must now commit to applying RSB certification, or another equivalent standard, in their aviation biofuel sourcing.
NRDC asked 22 airlines to respond to its questionnaire and received responses from just 12, which the group describes in a report on its findings as “discouraging”. Of those 12, 11 participate in the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), which is a member of RSB. However, the findings show only two airlines have committed to using RSB certification in their sourcing efforts. NRDC calls on airlines to publicly commit to source only 100% certified sustainable biofuel by 2015, or as soon as they initiate biofuel purchases if later than 2015.
“Making this commitment would build on the airlines’ positive work to date in studying and using sustainable biofuels,” says the report. “A robust requirement around certification is a necessary next step. The RSB certification standard is global, robust and appropriate for aviation biofuels, and we recommend the principle use of RSB certification. We strongly encourage all airlines intending to use biofuels to join the RSB and become directly engaged members.”
NRDC says that as large-volume buyers, airlines’ engagement would send important market signals that sustainability is critical and needed strong standards and verification. “Failure to engage with suppliers today and send clear signals risks exposure for all parties in the future once these supplies begin to scale.”
The majority of airlines surveyed were monitoring and researching the greenhouse gas (GHG) lifecycle emissions of biofuels and indirect land use change (ILUC), says NRDC, but fewer than half had publicly disclosed the GHG performance, volumes or sustainability of the biofuels they use. The report therefore calls for greater transparency, which would serve the dual purpose of building confidence with important stakeholders and sending a clear and consistent message to potential suppliers in the marketplace who were watching to see if airlines were fully committed to sourcing certified biofuels.
Attempts by the survey to compile a picture of the total volumes of aviation biofuels that have been used so far proved largely unsuccessful but NRDC’s background research indicates that the figure is between 600,000 and 2 million gallons across the industry. Follow-up research estimated that fewer than 30,000 gallons were deemed sustainable.
NRDC says the market for aviation biofuel is rising and will continue to grow significantly in the next decade. It cites the ambitious targets set by the US Department of Defense, the EU aim of using 600 million gallons of aviation biofuel a year by 2020 and China’s goal of 7.5 billion gallons by the same year (see chart below). “Even one-tenth of this projected growth would represent dramatic development for the aviation biofuels industry,” says the report.
As the development of aviation biofuels was still in its infancy, the airlines have not been named in the survey but NRDC says it is the first step in an ongoing effort to measure, monitor and communicate on the use of both sustainable biofuels and sustainability certification by airlines. “As the marketplace develops, we intend to publish airline names and their progress towards sourcing certified sustainable biofuels,” it says.
NRDC ‘Aviation Biofuel Sustainability Survey’
Published aviation biofuel targets in tonnes per annum from China, Europe and the United States (source: NRDC)
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