The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has challenged governments worldwide to take four key steps to support the global aviation sector’s commitment to tackle climate change. Speaking in Hong Kong yesterday, Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s Director General and CEO, stressed the need to:

  1. 1. Adopt challenging industry targets to stabilise and eventually reduce aviation’s carbon emissions;
  2. 2. Manage aviation’s carbon emissions through ICAO under a new ‘Kyoto II’ framework by treating aviation as a global industrial sector;
  3. 3. Invest in efficient infrastructure, particularly air traffic management; and
  4. 4. Establish fiscal and legal frameworks to promote the rapid development of biofuels for aviation.

Whilst the aviation sector represents a significant source of employment and growth, it also has an increasing contribution to global climate change.

The sector accounts for around 2% of global emissions – around 677mtCO2 in 2008, expected to grow to 3% by 2050 (IPCC, 2007; ATAG, 2009). Whilst increasing efficiencies have reduced emissions, these have been outstripped by emissions increases due to industry growth; and the industry now consumes around 150m litres of ‘Jet A1′ fuel per year. The aviation sector has few alternative fuel options; and electric drives frequently cited as an alternative road transport option, are not likely to present a viable solution for aviation.

The industry argues that a global sectoral approach is essential to reduce aviation emissions; ensuring that airlines pay for their climate cost just once at a global level, rather than several times over within national targets; or through varying policies across numerous jurisdictions. For example, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) passed legislation for the inclusion of aviation sector emissions in January 2009, requiring all flights from European airports to consider their carbon liabilities. This is expected to drive emissions reductions on a level playing field, promoting efficiencies and the development and commercialisation of emerging sustainable aviation fuels.

“Aviation is unique among industries. When it comes to environment, no other global industry is as united, ambitious or determined. Our track record clearly shows that aviation is unique in its ability to drive major global changes. For example, IATA rolled-out e-ticketing to every corner of the planet in just 48 months,” said Bisignani.

IATA’s four-pillar strategy to address climate change with modern technology, effective operations, efficient infrastructure and positive economic measures is another example. “Implementing the four-pillar strategy, IATA has already saved over 68 million tonnes of CO2. This year we expect aviation’s carbon emissions to fall by 7% – some 5% from the recession and 2% as a direct result of our work,” said Bisignani.

Government commitment will be critical for the aviation sector to reduce its emissions, and IATA calls for strong leadership at the Copenhagen summit to reject uncoordinated and opportunistic taxation which ‘does nothing for the environment’ and focus instead on positive emissions reduction activity – such as the air traffic management projects (US NextGen for example).

An industry-wide commitment, formalised in a working paper to be presented to the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) today, will pledge the following targets:

  • – Improving fuel efficiency 1.5% on average per year through 2020
  • – Stabalising emissions with carbon-neutral growth from 2020
  • – Reducing emissions 50% by 2050, compared to 2005.

In order to support this effort, governments must also play a significant role in facilitating and accelerating commercialisation of emerging sustainable feedstocks for large-scale bio-jet fuel production. Along with technological improvements in aircraft, sustainably produced biojet fuels are considered the most viable long-term alternative fuel for the aviation sector, delivering long-term GHG reduction and fuel security (ATAG, 2009). The industry is aiming for carbon neutral growth, with some airlines aiming to operate their fleet on 25% biofuels by 2025 (ATAG, 2009). Studies by Boeing (2009) suggest that microalgae-based biojet fuels provide better fuel specifications than current, traditional Jet A1 fuel, including a better heat combustion, which increases the aircraft’s fuel burn (allows the aircraft to fly for longer on less fuel), potentially by around 1%. This presents a significant financial driver for wider uptake of microalgae-based biojet fuels. Other feedstocks also being explored for biojet fuel production include camelina, jatropha and pongamia piñata, to name a few.

Bio-derived oils from the feedstock are converted into a drop-in’ biojet fuel, via a patented hydrogenation procedure, which produces ‘bio-derived synthetic paraffinic kerosene’ (Bio-SPK) (Taylor, 2009; Boeing, 2009). Test flights have been undertaken using bio-SPK, most notably by Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines and Japan Airlines using blends of jatropha, camelina and algae (2% blends of algae were used in the latter two) (ATAG, 2009, Boeing, 2009).

Microalgae biofuels have the potential to play a significant role in the long-term sustainability of the aviation sector. However, the major challenges for microalgae-based biojet fuel production are expected to be production at a scale appropriate for aviation consumption, whilst increasing productivities and decreasing cost per hectare (ATAG, 2009). Whilst commercialisation challenges exist, microalgae as a feedstock is considered as ‘the future’ sustainable aviation transport fuel.

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