Thursday, 10 February 2011

Flying In The Face Of Climate Change - Douglas Blackwell MioD

We’re all polluting our planet. Everything we touch in our homes, at work and on the journey in between, has been made in processes that dump CO2 into the atmosphere. Scientists may debate the exact amount of damage we’re causing and the long-term effects, but the fact remains: every minute of every day we’re releasing greenhouse gases (GHG).


Aviation seems like an obvious culprit, with vapour trails scarring our clear blue skies. Despite technology that enables us to sit at a home computer having simultaneous video conferences with people in Los Angeles and Sydney, we love to fly. It’s a preference that’s producing a lot of turbulence these days.

Aviation’s supporters point out that flying is responsible for just two percent of global CO2 emissions. Even so, the industry is in the process of making a remarkable turnaround, fostered by external regulation and internal determination. It provides a good and clear example of what’s possible.

The science is simple: every tonne of aviation fuel burned produces 3.15 tonnes of GHG. Aviation’s industry body, IATA, has responded in a number of ways, including programmes to reduce fuel burned and testing renewable biofuels. Encouraged by past success in cutting CO2 emissions, IATA recently increased its former target to use six percent of renewable-source fuel by 2020 to ten percent by 2017.

Cap and Trade


A big spur for the aviation industry is the impending threat of emissions limits and trading. The EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme caps the amount of GHG that countries can release and operates a market for excess amounts and shortfalls. The airline industry will be roped in from 2012 onwards. The effect on airlines will be colossal, with an additional one billion Euros in carbon costs added to their fuel bill.

To meet the challenge, leading aviation players are co-operating to develop alternative fuels that cut GHG emissions and satisfy criteria for sustainability. They are working to a new fuel specification in which renewable fuel, Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene (bio-SPK), is blended 50 percent with regular Jet A1.

Test results are encouraging. They show that bio-SPK has nearly identical fuel properties to jet fuel and has performed successfully in tests carried out by Continental Airlines, Air New Zealand and Japan Airlines. Rigorous analysis of the results shows no adverse effects from using the 50/50 blend but does show a cut in CO2 emissions of 60 to 65 percent, as well as a 1.1 percent saving in fuel consumption on long-haul distances.

Food or Fuel?


So biofuels look set to save the aviation industry a great deal of money in fuel costs and carbon charges, but is it sustainable? The answer may partly come from certification schemes such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB), which developed a sustainability Standard for biofuel production.
The RSB is a global initiative coordinated by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, in which all stakeholders within and outside the supply chain can participate (farmers, non-governmental organisations, oil companies, airlines, experts, governments, and inter-governmental agencies). All these actors share the concern of the sustainability of biofuel production and processing. The RSB develops a third-party certification system based on biofuel sustainability Standard embracing environmental, social and economic principles and criteria.

The RSB Standard looks at GHG emissions themselves, as well as conservation, water, air, waste management, human rights, social development, food security and land rights. The objective of the RSB is to provide a credible tool that ensures better biofuels for biofuel buyers, regulators and the public over the entire supply chain of growing, extracting, refining and supplying.


IATA’s focus is on an alternative biomass fuel that can be produced sustainably without harming food production or fresh water usage, and can cut CO2 emissions by 80 percent. Preferred alternative feedstocks include Camelina and Jatropha. The latter, while not widely known, is proving to be one of the most promising.

The Jatropha Curcas plant is a perennial bushy tree that grows within the tropical belt in arid conditions. The nuts it produces as seeds give four to five times as much oil as canola (rapeseed), as much as 30% to 35% of their own weight. Not only is it immensely productive, Jatropha is a true, sustainable, alternative biofuel. It grows in marginal soils, so it doesn’t steal land from food production. The tree doesn’t need to be fertilised or burned back after harvest. Jatropha, which is inedible to humans and animals, is refined into pure bio-diesel and bio-aviation fuels. The end-product seedcake can be heat- and pressure-treated to make animal feed or turned into fuel to replace wood.


Carbon in Chains



Jatropha was one of the components of the 50/50 blend tested by airlines. As a fuel it works. But to prove sustainability and secure a much-prized accreditation, growers need to be diligent agriculturally, commercially and socially. Growers of Jatropha have found themselves extending their business downstream into oil extraction and refining. The reason is that the aviation industry will not buy fuel from a non-accredited source, because nothing less than fully certified fuel will gain exemption from carbon emission charges.

To gain accreditation, biofuel suppliers must show they have measured every aspect of carbon capture from day one of planting through to the aircraft’s fuel tanks. Growers must measure the entire carbon custody chain above and below ground, including harvesting, transport, extracting the Jatropha oil and refining into bio-SPK.

Currently, Anglo African Farm’s process produces a 68 percent saving of GHG emissions before transport and refining. Over time, plantations grow more canopy sucking in more carbon. That, plus precise auditing and production techniques, is likely to boost savings up to around 88 percent, higher than IATA’s 80 percent target. At this level, biofuel is extremely attractive. If the airline uses an 88 percent certified fuel, it can prove it has cut its carbon dump by that amount.

Sustainable for Everyone – Community Development


Using alternative generation feedstock may limit the food for fuel argument, but may not be sufficient to address all impacts. The RSB is currently developing an approach to address indirect impacts of growing biofuel feedstocks, especially on GHG emissions, local communities and wildlife habitats.

As an example of the level of effort producers put into meeting sustainability targets, Anglo African Farm allocates one third of its 12,500 hectare Jatropha plantation to local communities. Of this share, they teach local farmers how to efficiently grow maize and legumes – both for local consumption – plus a section of rain-fed Jatropha which is sold back to Anglo African Farm for cash.

As well as providing hundreds of jobs, the main plantation pays rent to local chiefs and five percent of profits from the sale of the crops go to a community uplift programme to improve living standards.

Because transport has to be included in the carbon cost of biofuel, production of Jatropha oil and its subsequent refining have to take place as close to source as possible. In Africa, river transport on barges is preferred over road haulage. Plantations are sited not solely on available land, but where transport links exist to oil extraction and refining facilities. These installations, again, represent rare and important investments in parts of Africa that suffer from extreme poverty.

As the enterprise begins to produce biofuel on an industrial scale, other investors will be encouraged to begin planting nearby. Buying in from other growers is an important element in the economics of the business model and for supplying the huge need of the aviation industry for biofuel.

The Scale Of The Need


IATA’s Director-General, Giovanni Bisignani, has said IATA expects the aviation industry to use ten percent bio-fuel to power aircraft by 2017. The current annual usage is 250 billion litres. With annual growth in traffic of five percent, the industry will need 351 billion litres of jet fuel by 2017 from conventional hydrocarbon sources.

The target of using ten percent biofuel in the form of FAA certified J50 blend fuel – 50 percent hydrocarbon kerosene and 50 percent bio kerosene (Bio-SPK) – will require 17.5 billion litres of bio kerosene. This will need 45 million tonnes of Jatropha oil seed in production by 2017, covering a land mass of ten million hectares. IATA’s other preferred biomass sources (algae and Camelina) will augment supplies, but not by enough. Clearly, then, if the aviation industry is to meet its own targets, production of bio-feedstocks must be ramped up on a colossal scale.

Federal and EU regulators will continue to put financial pressure on CO2 emissions. Industry bodies have set themselves ambitious targets to cut GHG emissions. Biofuels have proven themselves in performance as technically sound, drop-in fuels for aircraft. They reduce immensely the carbon output of flying by better fuel performance and much lower CO2 emissions.

Biofuel will keep us flying, responsibly. Its most useful source, Jatropha, will bloom across the arid grasslands of Africa. The seeds of this humble plant will help roll back the advance of climate change, keeping our aircraft in the skies, taking us to our business meetings and our beach towels to holidays in the sun. And as a bonus, Jatropha will bring prosperity to some of the poorest people on earth.

I call that progress.

Douglas Blackwell MioD

1 comment:

  1. Now a day’s Jatropha biodiesel is most important and of the best need of ours. This help us to everybody so here I found one of the best thing that jatropha curacus which is new for me and thanks for giving information about it. Keep blogging.

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