NRDC publishes airline sustainability scorecard

By Erin Voegele | February 13, 2015

The Natural Resources Defense Council recently released a scorecard that ranks airlines on the use of sustainable biofuels. According to the NDRC’s report, Air France/KLM is the leader of the pack, followed by British Airways, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, and Alaska Airlines.

“It’s great to see certain airlines becoming leaders in the use of sustainable biofuels,” said Debbie Hammel, senior resource specialist with NRDC’s Land & Wildlife Program and author of the scorecard. “As the world rises to the challenge of curbing climate change and cutting carbon pollution, addressing air travel pollution has to be part of the mix.  The aviation sector has been pretty proactive about this issue, and an industry-wide increase in the use of sustainably produced biofuels is definitely on the horizon.”

The scorecards evaluate airlines’ adoption of biofuels, focusing on the use of leading sustainability certification standards, participation in industry initiatives to promote sustainability certification, public commitments to sustainability certification in sourcing, and the monitoring and disclosure of sustainability metrics.

According to the NDRC, more than 40 commercial airlines around the world have flown an estimated 600,000 miles powered at least in part by biofuels over the past five years. Lufthansa completed a study on the long-term effect of aviation biofuels on engines, noting no adverse impacts, while KLM conducted 26 long-haul flights demonstrating it is possible to organize and coordinate a complex supply chain and fly regularly scheduled flights on aviation biofuel blends.

Within its report, the NDRC indicates that to complete the scorecard, it sent questionnaires to 32 airlines that have used biofuels or are publicly claiming they plan to use them. Responses were received from 17 airlines, including Air France/KLM, British Airways, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, Alaska Airlines, Virgin Australia, Air New Zealand, GOL, Qantas, TUI Travel, ANA, Japan Airlines, Jet Blue, Singapore, South African Airways, and Finnair.

While only one airline reported being a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, 16 of the 17 respondents are members of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, which is a member of the RSB. According to the NDRC, all of the respondents but one have committed to RSB certification via their SAFUG membership.

According to the scorecard, Air France/KLM, British Airways, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific and Alaska Airlines all have contracts in place for the future delivery of sustainable biofuels. United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Alaska Airlines, Virgin Australia, Air New Zealand, and GOL disclose the total volume of biofuels used in a year. In addition, Air France/KLM, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, TUI Travel and Finnair either have disclosed annual biofuel use volumes in the past or intend to do so in the future. When asked if they disclose the volume of sustainable biofuel used in a year, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Alaska Airlines, Virgin Australia, and GOL said yes, while Air France/KLM, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Finnair said they either have done so in the past or plan to in the future. Only Air France/KLM said that the 75-100 percent of the total biofuel it used in the past year was sustainable.

Air France and United Airlines said they monitor the full life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) performance of their biofuels and disclose that information. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, Alaska Airlines, Virgin Australia, GOL Qantas and Finnair said they either have monitored the full life cycle GHG performance of their biofuels in the past or intend to do so in the future, and have either disclosed that information in the past and plan to do so in the future. Air New Zealand said it has monitored the full life cycle GHG performance of their biofuels in the past or intends to do so in the future, but will not disclose the GHG life cycle performance.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic reported they have assessed the indirect land use change (ILUC) impacts of their biofuel use, while Cathay Pacific, and Virgin Australia said they have either done this in the past or intend to do so in the future. Air France/KLM, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Virgin Australia, and Air New Zealand said they are actively engaged in developing measures, avoiding, or researching ILUC.

The scorecard also features several recommendations made by the NRDC, including a recommendation that airlines send clear market signals regarding the importance of sustainability certification. The NDRC also recommends airlines using biofuels should make a public commitment to source 100 percent certified-sustainable biofuel and encourages the principal use of RSB certification in aviation biofuel sourcing. The organization also said the SAFUG and its member airlines should make a firm commitment to the use of the RSB and airlines should aim for total transparency in disclosing biofuel volume, greenhouse gas profile, and sustainable certification used in sourcing. In addition, the NRDC, recommends airlines that do not already have a dedicated biofuels staff should hire specialists to focus on the advanced fuel industry.

A full copy of the scorecard can be downloaded from the NRDC website