The world’s 7,000 airlines could switch to low-carbon jet fuels much faster than other transport because aeroplanes have very few “filling stations”, says Richard Branson.
“Unlike cars where there are millions of filling stations, there are only about 1,700 aviation stations in the world. So if you can get the right fuel, like mass-produced algae, then getting it to 1,700 outlets is not so difficult,” Branson said in an interview with the Guardian from the British Virgin islands.
Branson, who announced last month he hoped Virgin would soon be able to use waste gases from industrial steel and aluminium plants as a fuel, said the industry should aim for 50% sustainable fuels by 2020. [Fine to use the waste gases, but that won’t make up much of the overall fuel used by aviation. And what does he mean by “sustainable”? could mean anything. So bit of a meaningless statement]
“I would be very disapointed if not. Once the breakthrough takles place, getting to 50-100% is not unrealistic. Aviation fuel is 25-40% of the running costs of airlines so the industry is open to new fuels.” [So this means it is being done to try and save costs, not carbon].
Branson, whose Virgin group owns 51% of Virgin Atlantic Airways, was speaking in advance of the launch in Durban of RenewableJetFuels.org, an open access website that assesses and updates the progress of companies planning to produce commercial-scale renewable fuel for aviation. [ Renewable maybe, but not necessarily low carbon, or not competing in one way or other with human or animal food etc].
It suggests that of the 40 companies claiming to have the potential to deliver large-scale amounts – about one third of them are “credible” from an economic, scalable and sustainability perspective in their current state.
In the next five years, according to the website published by business NGO Carbon War Room (which was founded by Richard Branson) and academic publisher Elsevier, some renewable jet fuel companies “could be producing enough renewable fuel to replace 10-20% of the fuel of a typical mid-sized airline”. [So does that mean all these companies together can produce enough fuel for a bit of the needs of just one airline? Surely that would not make much difference].
The data, said Branson, should allow airlines to accelerate linkups with fuel companies.
“Producers can continually update and re-submit data. This is then reviewed by experts, enabling RenewableJetFuels.org to be the independent, gold standard for investors and airlines in the market,” said Suzanne Hunt, head of operations at Carbon War Room.
“Trying to address climate change makes business sense”, said Branson, whose Virgin airline spends around $3bn a year on jet fuel.
“The jet fuel industry can charge what they like at present. New fuels will compete. You could find the price of aviation fuel comes down.” [So these fuels are only being developed for cost reasons, and to hell with the carbon or other implications].
Three years ago Virgin flew a plane to Holland on coconut fuel [and babassu nut oil] and no one took it seriously, said Branson. [And rightly so. See http://www.airportwatch.org.uk/?p=1285 It used 150,000 coconuts for 6% of the fuel London to Amsterdam …….] “The industry thought it was PR. BA was pretty dismissive, saying planes will never fly on bio-fuels. But it actually kickstarted thinking. Since then, even BA has started investing in new biofuels.
“We’re heading in the right direction. The industry could go from one of the dirtiest to one of the cleanest in 10 years. We are investing in different companies and really beginning to see traction”.
The five leading alternative jet fuel companies identified by Carbon War Room are Lanzatech, SG biofuels, AltAir, Solazyme and Sapphire.
In answer to critics who say moves by the aviation industry to tap into biofuels or other renewable fuels are simply “greenwash”, he said attempting to reduce emissions from flying through finding greener fuels was “a better approach than giving up”.
|For much more on biofuels and why they are not the magic bullet solution for the aviation industry, see Biofuels and Biofuels News
and Flights that have been fuelled by biofuels This Branson move is yet another play by the airlines to try to avoid there being any global agreement capping their emissions; this time using the “look how quickly we are changing, there is no need to intervene” argument. At this rate they will be carbon neutral in roughly 1000 years!
There is a long page of questions and answers on the Renewable Jet Fuels website.
Below are a few extracts from it (there is no mention anywhere of the carbon reductions that these fuels might bring):
Q. What’s driving the development of renewable fuels?
A. High fuel prices, fuel price volatility, and the desire to reduce GHGs from the aviation sector. Some governments around the world are considering and implementing carbon emissions penalties for aviation, and airlines using low carbon renewable fuels would benefit under these schemes. Finally, there has been a major shift in global refinery output away from jet fuel and toward gasoline and diesel fuels. This, combined with growing commercial and military jet fuel demand, is increasing cost and volatility of the jet fuel fraction relative to other fossil fuel types.
Q. What are the social implications of the aviation industry moving heavily into renewable fuels?
A. At the macro/global level, petroleum is found in a relatively small number of countries, while all countries are endowed with renewable resources so this represents a socioeconomic opportunity in a large number of countries. The jet fuel market is approximately 10% of the total petroleum fuel market, much smaller relative to gasoline and diesel markets. For technical and market reasons, companies involved in producing renewable jet fuel generally are also involved in making other types of fuels, so if this helps bring a shift to renewable fuels broadly there could be significant social implications, but it all depends on how the industry develops, including ownership structures, employment practices, feedstocks/technologies used, etc.
Our globalized world relies on air travel to connect people, goods, and commerce across the planet; aviation provides innumerable social and economic benefits. High and volatile fuel prices, as well as carbon emissions associated with fossil jet fuels represent fundamental threats to the future of commercial aviation. Renewable jet fuels may not only help the aviation sector survive, but even thrive in the future.
Q. What’s your response to the argument that the biofuels currently out there cause deforestation, food price rises, hunger, poverty, biodiversity loss and they often produce more GHG emissions than the fossil fuels they replace?
A. It all depends on what fuel, made from what materials, where, and how. Some biofuels could have some or maybe even all of those negative impacts, and some will be hugely beneficial. It is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. It is extremely important that we clearly distinguish between the sustainable biofuel production pathways and unsustainable pathways, and support those that are sustainable. This is a key part of our mission.
It is worth noting that we use the term “renewable fuels” to be inclusive of new production pathways that don’t use biomass as a major input (for example, there are companies that are converting all kinds of waste into fuel including steel mill emissions and municipal waste, and some are working on direct conversion of solar energy into liquid fuels – they’ve dubbed them “solar fuels”.
Q. What is the market potential for these renewable fuels?
A. In both dollar and volume terms, there is a huge market for renewable jet fuels. Annual jet fuel demand is over 5 million barrels per day – making it a multi-billion dollar market. In 2010 Airlines alone spent $140 billion on jet fuel and expect to spend more the $200 billion in 2011.
Q. Isn’t the best way of reducing emissions in aviation, to have less flying? Or lighter aircraft?
A. Those are great ways to reduce emissions and we encourage greater efficiency and new ways of living and working that reduce pollution, however studies show that those measures alone will likely not be enough to halt the growth in emissions from the sector. [How’s that for a non-answer !]
The website also says:
For the purpose of our data collection and rankings, we allow companies to provide documentation of any sustainability certification they have obtained. Currently the only sustainability certification system that encompasses all renewable transport fuels, is global, is multi-stakeholder, and followed the ISEAL best practices for transparency and inclusiveness is the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB). The RSB is a voluntary sustainability certification scheme that has just recently begun certifying producers. It is working to streamline its process and to harmonize with EU and US legal sustainability requirements so as to facilitate the marketplace with credible, rigorous sustainability standards that do not become a market barrier.
Comments from AirportWatch members:
What a load of rubbish Branson speaks to make his polluting industry seem greener than it is.
I don’t see how the number of “filling” stations makes any difference to the speed of roll out. Fuel is a high turnover product with very few places of manufacture (refineries), so the fact there is thousands of car filling stations is irrelevant and will make no difference to the speed of roll out.
I see there is virtually nothing about cutting carbon – as most fuels will make very small cuts in carbon emisssions, if any.
This is just part of a long-term campaign to persuade the public, the government, etc that aviation is trying really hard, while in practice it is only trying to keep on growing for as long as possible, as much as possible. It’s a PR thing. Pity he has got to Durban, to muddy the waters there.
This is a smoke-screen to obscure the real situation.
It does make a good press release though!
Airlines Flying on Clean Fuel Should Pay Less Tax, Branson Says
Date added: January 3, 2012
Branson manages to persuade many people that he takes his responsibilities to the environment seriously, and really plans to fly “green” and “clean” planes … whatever those charmingly vague terms mean. The spin about “clean”, alternative bio-jet fuels is fair enough if it concerns fuels made from waste flue gases, but his hopes of the aviation industry growing hugely by 2050 and getting half its fuel from biofuels by then are unrealistic. The hype is intended to persuade government etc that the aviation industry is seriously trying to tackle the issue of carbon emissions and thus to get as much government subsidy for this as possible. In reality it is a delaying tactic to to continue business as usual.