10 years ago a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 flew from London to Amsterdam powered by a mixture of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts. The arrival at Schiphol airport marked the first time that a commercial aeroplane used biofuel for the 80-minute journey. A big step if not a giant leap for biofuels.
A decade later, aviation industry ambitions for biofuels are loftier. On the tenth anniversary of the flight, Alexandre de Juniac, the head of the International Air Transport Association, said the momentum for sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) was “now unstoppable”.
From one flight in 2008, we passed the threshold of 100,000 flights in 2017, and we expect to hit one million flights during 2020. But that is still just a drop in the ocean compared to what we want to achieve.
“We want one billion passengers to have flown on a SAF-blend flight by 2025. That won’t be easy to achieve. We need governments to set a framework to incentivise production [of sustainable air fuels] and ensure it is as attractive to produce as automotive biofuels,” he said.
The industry will need all the help it can get to reach its targets. Within only two years the global industry aims to cap carbon emissions at their current level, even as the number of flights taken each year continues to climb. By 2050 it intends to produce half as much carbon dioxide as it did in 2005.
The pressure is rising. The Government has aviation carbon emissions in its sights and at the centre of the forthcoming aviation strategy, and with good reason.
Official figures show that the industry contributed 7pc of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, an increase from 5pc in 2005. By contrast, aviation contributes just 2pc on a global basis.
The energy industry has made good progress and the electric revolution on the roads is taking shape. But in aviation, attempts to cut carbon emissions remain in a holding pattern despite the looming legal commitment to cut overall carbon emissions by 80pc from 1990 levels by 2050.
Increasing numbers of flights mean fundamental change is required and hopes are pinned on biofuels. Airlines have already bought 1.5bn gallons of plant-based fuel in advance and airports in the UK, Oslo, Stockholm, Brisbane and Los Angeles are already mixing biofuels with oil-based supplies.
But the challenge of rising demand for air travel cannot be overestimated. Last year the aviation industry grew by 7pc from 2016 in terms of “revenue passenger kilometres”, a key industry measure.
Jon Platt, chief executive officer of Air BP, says passenger growth could double by 2035, which would drive fuel demand up by over a third. It is a dual challenge that the oil major’s aviation division is positioning itself to meet.
Fundamentally this is a very strong growth industry that also needs to meet the dual challenge of reducing emissions as well
Earlier this year, Air BP took a $30m gamble on the booming demand for biofuels. Through a strategic partnership with BP Ventures it secured a decade’s worth of fuel from Fulcrum BioEnergy, a pioneer in the development and production of low-carbon jet fuel.
Through this deal alone, Air BP will buy 50m gallons of biofuel a year from Fulcrum’s US refineries. Platt says the deal was underpinned by the firm’s deep understanding of the challenges ahead.
“This agreement gives Air BP guaranteed access to product which will help meet these challenges. Securing this supply helps secure the future competitiveness of Air BP, and our place as a leader in the industry,” he says.
Aviation biofuels have already faced plenty of turbulence. Major ventures have failed over costs and survivors face a barrage of criticism from those doubting biofuel’s “green” credentials.
In 2016 British Airways abandoned plans for its £340m “Greensky” project as oil market prices grazed 12-year lows and its US-based partner Solena filed for bankruptcy.
The scheme would have used just over half a million tons of landfill waste from London homes at the Coryton refinery in Thurrock, Essex to make enough jet fuel every year to power all its flights from City airport twice over.
At the time, British Airways said that several factors contributed to Greensky’s failure to launch. These included falling oil prices, lack of policy support for such projects in the UK, and Solena Fuels’ financial woes.
Today, oil prices have more than doubled and government spending is creeping forward.
The Department for Transport said last year that it would include sustainable jet fuels in its subsidy scheme, the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation.
This alone, according to BA, could stimulate as many as a dozen new advanced biofuel plants in the UK by 2030.
The Government is also dipping into its £22m alternative aviation fuels funding pot to help support British Airways’ return to biofuels.
The £5m project announced this summer, which is backed by industry as well as public funds, may be smaller in scope than Greensky but the airline believes it shows that government recognises the importance of alternative fuels in aviation.
Under the new project, biofuels firm Velocys has committed £1.5m to the next phase of development in a feasibility scheme. The scheme has also secured a further £3m from oil major Shell and British Airways.
As more projects emerge to help spur the industry towards its clean goals, companies can be sure that scrutiny of the sustainability criteria will be fierce.
Virgin’s first foray into biofuels 10 years ago was branded by environmentalists as a “gimmick” and a “high-altitude greenwash”.
The airline industry is clear, united and adamant that we will never use a sustainable fuel that upsets the ecological balance of the planet or depletes its natural resources,
It’s a vow which will need to be proven if the industry’s green dreams are to be cleared for take-off.