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Alternative jet fuel slow to launch

The global aviation industry is committed to long-term carbon emission cuts, but low oil prices are slowing the development of alternative types of jet fuel

All oil-burning vehicles emit carbon dioxide, but none show it as dramatically as jet aircraft on a fine day. Without clouds to hide them, the patterns of vapour trails against a blue sky mark clearly the footprints of aircraft engine exhaust fumes.

The aviation industry is aware of its image as an atmosphere polluter and has committed itself to cleaning up its act. From 2009 to 2020 fuel efficiency is being improved by 1.5% a year, mainly through the introduction of new and technologically advanced aircraft. In 2020, the industry has pledged to stabilise CO2 emissions through carbon-neutral growth.

Then comes the big promise. By 2050, the 191 member countries of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) have pledged to cut emissions to 50% of 2005 levels. The mandatory start-date for this carbon offset and reduction scheme is 2027, but 68 states have said they will begin the process on a voluntary basis from 2021.

"The industry has nailed its colours to the mast," John Pitts, head of eJet, a global aviation fuel specialist, told Petroleum Economist. "It's set itself something to work towards that's as global as any initiative could be."

The move towards using sustainable aviation fuel is already under way. Virgin Atlantic carried out the first test flight powered by a biojet fuel blend in 2008. According to Jane Hupe, environmental protection chief at ICAO, "this year 25 airlines will operate more than 5,000 flights using jet fuel mixed with sustainable alternative fuels on a trial basis." For example, United Airlines, is using this blend on flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Yet Hupe also acknowledges that "with prices for conventional jet fuel remaining low", because of the slump in the global oil market, "energy companies have little incentive to invest in new technologies". According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the oil price factor has "made alternative jet fuel business cases more difficult to gain economic approval and obtain necessary finance".

There are other issues, too. Sustainable biofuels are largely made from plants—such as vegetable oils, sugar crops, cereals—or non-food biomass. "Different methods use different ingredients, often sourced from a variety of geographical locations," says Pitts. "It's an extremely complicated process and requires significant investment."

Despite the challenges, IATA says gradual progress is being made. It lists eight major airlines that have concluded long-term offtake agreements with biofuel suppliers, "most of which are reported as price-competitive". In January 2016, Norway's Oslo airport became the first to offer a regular sustainable fuel supply through the common hydrant system. From this month, Bergen airport is offering the same.

If the commercial aviation industry is to meet its 2050 target, then it has no choice but to encourage the expanded development and commercially competitive availability of sustainable fuel. As IATA points out "aviation has no near-term alternative to liquid hydrocarbon fuels". The main challenges to the wide deployment of alternative jet fuels, it adds, "are not technical, but commercial and political". IATA wants governments to put sustainable aviation fuel "on an equal footing with automotive biofuels through equivalent public incentives".

Land transport clearly has the edge in the drive for green fuel. In the view of eJet's Pitts, if progress with vehicles has reached around two or three on a one-to-10 scale, "then aviation is still on the starting line, I don't think we've reached step one yet. But in five years from now we'll see real progress."

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