The future is green

With industry players under increasing scrutiny to adopt innovative ways to promote sustainability, Tom Parsons, biojet commercial development manager, Air BP – Red Bull Air Race’s official fuel supplier and carbon reduction partner – asks can aviation ever truly be green?

It’s impossible to imagine a world without air travel, but there’s no denying that our ability to fly pretty much wherever and whenever we like comes at a huge environmental cost. However, while air travel is one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions, commitment from stakeholders across the industry to develop green technologies and optimisation means that one day, we may well be jetting off without a guilty conscience.

From a green perspective, the element that everyone is grappling with right now is how to mitigate CO2 emissions from air transport. To tackle this head on, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has established a set of ambitious targets which include: improving fuel efficiency; achieving carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards; and a reduction in net aviation CO2 emissions of 50% by 2050, relative to 2005.

Cleaner, greener fuels

Every day more than 100,000 commercial flights carry more than 11 million passengers and more than 99% of these flights are powered by fossil or hydrocarbon fuels. It’s the high energy density found in hydrocarbon fuels that has really enabled us to be flying at all. So, finding a suitable substitute for that is the big challenge. 

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) produced from vegetable oils or biomass is currently the most viable route to reducing CO2 emissions in air transport. It has been designed as a ‘drop-in’ fuel and can be blended with up to 50% traditional jet fuel so that it is safe to use in existing aircraft and airport infrastructure. 

Air BP itself has already supplied SAF to 15 locations in five countries over recent years. Last October we agreed a collaboration with leading renewable fuel producer Neste to develop and supply SAF from non-palm renewable and sustainable raw materials including used cooking oil. These fuels are capable of reducing the carbon footprint of aviation fuel by up to 80% over their full lifecycle. However, with SAF costing several times more than traditional aviation fuel the big challenge with bringing it to market is really to do with managing that higher cost. We expect that things will improve over time and the cost will come down, as feedstock becomes more available and more efficient production technologies are developed.

More efficient aircraft

Over the past decade or so, engineers and aircraft manufacturers have come a long way in terms of engine design and their ability to create light yet powerful engines that burn less fuel.

Prototypes are already available for up to 10 - seater electric aircraft models that would sit well in the business and general aviation market. And, while we’re still a little way off larger commercial passenger aircraft being available with this technology, there are companies innovating with more efficient aircraft. For example, French-based manufacturer ATR’s latest generation of 72-600 turboprop aircraft burn 40% less fuel and emit 40% less CO2 than other regional jets. In May this year Air BP collaborated with ATR as well as Braathens Regional Airlines, Neste and Halmstad City Airport on the Perfect Flight, which saw every element of the flight planning and management process optimised to reduce CO2 emissions by an impressive 46%.

Meanwhile, Norwegian airport operator Avinor has a vision to make aviation a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. It intends to make all domestic air transport in Norway electrified by 2040 and from 2020 all aviation fuel sold in the country for civil purpose must contain at least 0.5% sustainable jet biofuel. 

The Nordics are certainly leading the way in terms of eco-innovation and passenger expectations. Customers there are already demonstrating their commitment to tackling climate change by saying “Yes, I want to have sustainable choices and I’m prepared to pay extra to facilitate that.”

Carbon offsetting measures

While IATA’s deadline for carbon neutral growth from 2020 onwards is looming, as an industry we are on target to deliver that initially at least through carbon offsetting. 

At Air BP, our aim across our international network of more than 250 locations where we are the operator is to drive efficiency in technologies such as start/ stop solutions on vehicles, improving operational efficiency of waste and stock management, maximising options for supplying SAF and introducing initiatives on which to develop a lower carbon future. Then any residual emissions, following these reductions, will be offset through BP Target Neutral – a scheme that enables us to offset emissions by purchasing carbon credits from carefully-selected environmental projects around the world. As such we are extremely proud that Air BP was the first aviation fuel supplier to achieve carbon neutrality for into-plane fuelling services across our international operations. 

As well as being the global fuel partner for the Red Bull Air Race, we are also the carbon reduction partner. We are delighted to have been able to apply our expertise in reducing and offsetting carbon emissions from the fuel used over each season through environmental projects which are proven to make a difference and help improve livelihoods in the communities where they are based.

Waste reduction and recycling

With the industry expected to generate over 10 million tonnes of waste annually by 2030, the waste from inflight catering is a huge concern. It’s also a problem that’s compounded by multiple factors from international health regulations and varying governmental waste policies to space constraints and cost restrictions. Stocking food and amenities that come in recyclable packaging is one solution, but it’s not always the best option. One of the benefits of plastic is that it is lightweight, whereas some alternative packaging options are heavier and therefore will have a larger carbon footprint. But airlines are working hard to reduce, and in some cases eliminate, single-use plastic. Pre-ordered meal options are also increasing in popularity with the obvious advantage of lowering cost and weight on board, which equates to lower fuel burn.

Ultimately on the waste disposal side, management is key - everything needs to be sorted and disposed of appropriately so that it doesn't all just end in landfill and can be reused where possible. It’s encouraging to see some great examples of airports working with airlines to optimise waste management. Gatwick for example has a waste management facility that can convert airport and airline waste such as food and packaging into energy that can be used on site. The facility is all part of the airport’s objective to boost its recycling rate to 85% by 2020.

Thinking outside the box

As a company Air BP also recognises the benefit of exploring other initiatives to lower its carbon footprint. In 2017 BP joined forces with a trailblazing company called Lightsource - Europe’s largest solar developer. The goal was to take the UK-based business global and two years on the Lightsource BP partnership has more than doubled its footprint around the world. We’re now talking to several airports in the US about installing solar farms on site and making that power available to customers through direct purchase agreements. It’s a win-win situation as airports are a large source of power demand and often have significant land available to accommodate solar farms. We’re looking forward to continuing our collaboration with Lightsource and are constantly seeking out other ventures to help build a more sustainable future. 

As an industry we are still very much at the start of the journey of being green, but significant steps are being taken. And, as the world nears a future with fewer resources and greater demand, creating a sustainable, greener environment is of paramount importance. But, it’s clear that within the aviation sector there is a real focus and commitment to achieve as green an industry as quickly and as safely as possible.