IATA CEO: We must 'make sustainable biofuels work commercially'

By Erin Voegele | November 22, 2011

International Air Transport Association Director General and CEO Tony Tyler spoke about environmental concerns and the role of biofuels in the aviation industry during his address to the IATA Fuel Forum last week in Paris. “Air transport needs fuel that is safe, used in an environmentally responsible manner, with a reliable supply and at a reasonable cost,” he said.

Regarding the environment, Tyler noted that fuel is intimately associated with one of aviation’s greatest challenges: reducing its carbon emissions. “Airlines are responsible for 2 percent of global manmade [carbon dioxide] emissions,” he said. “That is about 660 million [metric tons] of carbon a year. In 2012 we expect a fuel bill of about $200 billion or 32 percent of average operating costs. Emissions trading schemes and environmental taxes are progressively adding to the cost burden.”

According to Tyler, aviation must be sustainable. “Sustainability is our license to grow and provide the connectivity that has turned our planet into a global community. We have embraced this with commitments to improve fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent annually to 2020, cap net emissions from 2020 and cut net emissions in half by 2050 compared to 2005 levels,” Tyler said. “You are all familiar with our four-pillar strategy to achieve this with technology investments, better operations, more efficient infrastructure and globally harmonized positive economic measures.”

Tyler also outlined several measures the aviation industry is taking to help meet its sustainability and carbon reduction goals, including fuel saving measures and biofuels. “Five years ago, there was no alternative to jet fuel,” Tyler said. “Today there is—with sustainable biofuels. They are safe, approved and airlines are using them for commercial flights. With the potential to cut aviation’s carbon footprint up to 80 percent over the life cycle of the fuel, sustainable biofuels have the potential to be a game changer. But, they are still expensive and supply is limited. In other words, we need to commercialize them.”

While Tyler noted that the transition to biofuels will not be an easy process, he stressed that there is no shortage of commitment from the aviation industry to do so. He spoke specifically about six steps that must be taken in the arena of government policy to broaden the reach of sustainable biofuels in the aviation industry. He said that government policy must foster research into new feedstocks and refining processes while derisking public and private investments in the biofuels sector. Tyler also noted that polices must incentivize the use of biofuels from an early stage, encourage stakeholders to commit to robust international sustainability criteria, and make the most of local green growth opportunities. He also said that policy objectives should 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,” he said. “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. Let’s make no mistake. Airlines are committed to using sustainable biofuels. Why? Because they will be critical to achieving carbon-neutral growth and eventually cutting aviation’s emissions. Combined, these are the industry’s long-term license to grow. So, to secure our future, we need to make sustainable biofuels work commercially.”