It’s estimated that aviation is responsible for about two to four per cent of global CO2 emissions. Now the industry is responding to the pressure to mitigate its contribution to global warming.
Cathay Pacific, with most of the world’s airlines, has signed up to very tough carbon reduction plans. These include a cap on CO2 emissions from 2020, and a reduction of 50 per cent in net emissions against 2005 levels. That’s challenging in its own right, but more so given air travel is set to grow. Last year, industry association IATA revised its 20-year forecast to predict a doubling of passenger numbers by 2035.
So what can be done? For one thing, new-generation aircraft can offer 15-25 per cent fuel savings against the aircraft they replace, as Cathay Pacific biofuels and emissions and trading manager Yee Chow explains: ‘We have reduced fuel use on a unit basis by 25 per cent since 1998 – mainly through the introduction of new aircraft and some operational improvements.’
These include the growing Airbus A350 fleet, and single-engine taxiing – that is, not using both engines on the ground between the runway and terminal.
But Chow concedes that the widening gap between growth and a reduction in emissions ‘cannot be closed by aircraft technology alone’. Among the other options are carbon trading, which is when companies buy carbon credits on the open market – essentially investments in community and carbon reduction projects – and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). These alternatives to fossil fuels are derived from organic matter such as sugar cane.
Cathay Pacific is one of the first airlines to invest in the technology behind SAFs, rather than simply buying batches of biofuel. It has committed to buying 1.1 million tonnes of SAF over 10 years – enough for about two per cent of Cathay Pacific’s current operations – from 2020 from US-based Fulcrum BioEnergy, which will create fuel from household waste. In May, Fulcrum BioEnergy broke ground on its first biorefinery at its Sierra plant, 30 kilometres outside Reno, Nevada.
The feedstock centre, which has already been built, will process municipal and household waste otherwise bound for landfill, harvesting carbon and hydrogen from the organic portion to be converted into certified jet and diesel fuel, with a carbon content 80 per cent lower than fossil fuels.
Inorganic waste which can’t be converted to fuel is separated, along with recyclable metals and plastics, and sold on.
The remaining feedstock is then put into contact with high pressure steam to create a ‘syngas’ made up molecules of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and CO2. This gas is then refined into a liquid fuel using the Fischer-Tropsch process. The resulting syncrude can then be further refined into jet fuel, diesel and a thicker residue suitable for fuelling ships. Unlike fossil fuels, these are sulphur-free and contain very few metals.
When the facility is up and running in 2020, it will be able to convert 175,000 tonnes of waste into 30,000 tonnes of fuel each year. Speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony for the refinery, Jim Macias, Fulcrum co-founder, said: ‘This plant is going to change the way rubbish is disposed of and change the emissions of air transportation globally.’
And if two per cent doesn’t sound much for an airline group with 200 aircraft, consider this: among the stringent requirements aviation has set itself, alternative feedstocks for fuels may not take the place of established food crops on existing land, nor harm the environment. Additionally, the cost of SAFs tends to be greater than conventional fuel, and especially in the case of new technology, as Cathay Pacific senior vice-president Americas Philippe Lacamp explains.
‘Fulcrum is one of the most promising waste-to-fuel technologies in the world today,’ he says. ‘The attraction is that it makes jet fuel out of household rubbish, which is something we are unlikely to run out of. Using this as a feedstock means that our carbon footprint is reduced by 80 per cent for every gallon we use. The challenge now is to get technology to a commercial scale and that is why Cathay Pacific’s early support has been so important and why it is such a big step to have construction of the plant.’
Chow adds: ‘We see biofuel as a long-term play so the cost is expected to come down over time as production increases and it will allow us to have additional options in reducing our overall carbon exposure.’
Fulcrum has plans for further plants in the US and Europe, and the scaling up of operations will lower the price – and do more to reduce emissions. Lacamp adds: ‘Cathay Pacific made this investment because we are industry leaders and thanks to our very supportive shareholders, we are able to think long term.
‘We take our responsibility for reducing one of the major environmental impacts of aviation seriously. We look forward to helping Fulcrum make a real impact on the airline industry’s carbon footprint and provide us with cleaner burning, lower-emission fuels. That’s good for us and good for the communities in which we operate.’