Airlines world over currently consume almost 100 billion gallons of jet fuel annually. The demand is expected to escalate to 230 billion gallons by 2050 as the number of operated aircraft go up. Since all airlines pay for the fuel they consume for operating flights, should the humongous increase in consumption be a matter of concern for us?
Absolutely, since the aviation industry is considered one of the world’s highest emitters of carbon – and carbon emission at higher altitudes does more harm than on ground level.
Quantified as a percentage, airlines are responsible for 2 per cent of man-made global carbon emissions. The share is expected to grow proportionately with the increase in fuel consumption in the next few decades. This is the bad news!
The good news, however, is that the aviation industry has already initiated steps to reduce carbon emissions. The industry is committed to improving its record of fuel efficiency by 1.5% annually, and has begun capping net emissions from 2020 and seeks to cut net emissions to half by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.
Hitherto, the only effort at reducing emissions was by engine manufacturers, who in collaboration with aircraft manufacturers produced more fuel-efficient engines. The primary need for this development was the desire to drive down the notoriously high operating cost of fuel guzzling engines rather than a concern for the environment.
However ever since climate change has become a buzz word and environmentalists have begun crying hoarse to force reduction in carbon emissions and global warming, the aviation industry has taken the initiative to clean up its act. Considering the importance of this sector in ensuring economic growth and the role it plays in turning our planet into a global community, no sensible person will advocate restraining growth of flight operations. At a global level, aviation presently supports $3.5 trillion in economic activity and 33 million jobs.
What then is the alternative? Air transport needs fuel that is safe, used in an environmentally responsible manner, with a reliable supply and at reasonable cost. The most probable and viable solution that meets the requirement is the substitution of jet fuel with advanced biofuels – a liquid fuel that is a ‘drop in’ solution, i.e. it can be used by the existing infrastructure without necessitating any changes in aircraft or engines. Sustainable Alternative Fuel (SAF) also had to have the potential of being safely mixed with conventional jet fuel and use the existing supply infrastructure. What exactly is biofuel? Biofuels are biomass-derived fuels, from plants or waste; depending on which type of biomass is used, they could lower CO₂ emissions by 20–98% compared to conventional jet fuel used presently by the airline industry.
When the International Airline Transportation Association (IATA) took note of the problem of carbon emission in 2009, it foresaw numerous challenges. One was the sheer size of the jet fuel market, which was large and growing but the sustainable biofuels had the potential to cut aviation’s carbon footprint by up to 80% over the life cycle of the fuel. It was to be the biggest game changer. The solution, however, was not without huge drawbacks. Biofuels were not only expensive but its availability too was scarce.
IATA has been of the opinion that if all options to increase SAF production are explored, up to 1 billion passengers can fly on a SAF-blend flight by 2025 and with appropriate policy support, penetration of 2% (approx. 7 billion litres) could be achieved. IATA’s six step programme to promote successful commercialization of sustainable biofuels involves: (1) foster research into new feedstock sources and refining processes, (2) de-risk public and private investments in aviation biofuels, (3) provide incentives for airlines to use biofuels from an early stage, (4) encourage stakeholders to commit to robust international sustainability criteria, (5) make the most of local green growth opportunities, and (6) encourage coalitions encompassing all parts of the supply chain. “Such policies would help increase volumes and drive down costs—exactly what is needed to move forward. And at this time of global uncertainty, it makes sense for governments to invest in sustainable biofuels that will increase energy self-sufficiency and create jobs in the green economy,” avers IATA.
The progress has been steady through coordinated efforts. More than 30 airlines all over the world are now trailing or already deploying biofuel. Airlines have collectively operated over 300000 flights since 2016 – a minuscule number when compared to the total number of flights operated – 38.9 million in 2019, but nevertheless an impressive beginning. Insufficient supply and high prices have limited airline uptake of SAF to just 120 million litres in 2021 — a small fraction of the 350 billion litres that airlines consume in a year. SAF will help reduce emissions by up to 80% during its full lifecycle.
Boeing too has committed that commercial airplanes manufactured by the company will be capable and certified to fly on 100% SAF by 2030. More importantly, 45 airlines, which includes India’s SpiceJet, now have experience of operating flights using SAF.
What are India’s plans?
SpiceJet had operated India’s first test flight powered by biojet fuel, marking a new chapter in the fast-growing domestic aviation sector, in 2018 from Dehradun to Delhi with a Bombardier Q400 aircraft.
To ensure that India is part of the global endeavour, the Ministry of Petroleum constituted a Task Force, headed by Indian Oil, to formulate a Biojet fuel policy for India. The Task Force was assigned three months in April 2021 to submit its report.
The World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) initiative has brought together an Indian community of private and public institutions with a shared vision of scaling production and use of sustainable aviation fuel. To realize this vision, the CST India initiative has established a specific goal to transport 100 million domestic passengers on at least a 10% SAF blend by 2030. Both the blending percentage and target year are likely to be advanced. India’s total expected domestic need for jet fuel is estimated to be approximately 8 million tons by 2030, flying an estimated 190 million domestic passengers a year.
Prohibitive cost of SAF
Considering that the challenge of reducing carbon emissions has been taken up, it’s a question of time that scaled up production of SAF becomes economical making it lucrative for airlines to blend a gradually enhanced percentage of SAF with jet fuel. Higher the blend, lower the carbon emissions.
Good luck to the aviation industry for doing its bit to make the earth a better place through improved environment.
Jitender Bhargava is a former executive director and author of THE DESCENT OF AIR INDIA.