Could we be entering the era of greener air travel?

Plane flying over palm trees
Last week Thomson announced the launch of a weekly flight to Palma, fuelled by old cooking oil. Henry Gass asks whether more sustainable air travel could finally be in sight

As the eco-tourism industry grows, the aviation industry has been struggling to offer credible alternatives to carbon-heavy jet fuel for those looking keep their holidays green. Biofuels have been touted as the solution in the past, only to have concerns over links to agricultural displacement and a potentially severe environmental impact curtail implementation. But with the launch of Britain's first biofuel-powered commercial flight approaching, could package holiday giant, Thomson’s solution to the aviation problem be the one we've been waiting for?

The 232 passenger Boeing 757 is scheduled to leave 28th July, where two Rolls Royce engines will be powered with a 50-50 mixture of cooking oil and paraffin. Thomson did not have to make any changes to the engines in order to accommodate the new fuel. Both the airline and the Civil Aviation Authority insist the alternative fuel poses no safety risk, and that it shouldn’t cause any unusual smell. Thompson spokesman, Andy Cockburn, says cooking oil has ‘high sustainability potential,’ since it is a pure waste stream. ‘The environmental and social credentials of sustainable aviation biofuel, when done correctly, are undeniable,’ he adds.

Aviation produces between two and four per cent of global CO2 emissions. According to Thomson, biofuel has the potential to save as much as 80 per cent of CO2 emissions compared with traditional jet fuel. Thomson says the fuel would help the British aviation industry meet government targets of reducing carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2025. Tui Travel’s plan to reduce carbon emissions from their airlines by six per cent between 2008 and 2014, and European airlines, biofuel producers and the EU Commission recently committed to produce two million tonnes of biofuel for aviation by 2020.

Cockburn says government policy has yet to adjust to the immediate availability of biofuels, however. He says the original expectation had been for biofuelled flights to start taking off 10 to 15 years from now. ‘There is a need to look at ways to incentivise investment and building of a sustainable aviation biofuel infrastructure,’ says Cockburn. ‘This could be achieved through investment in R&D, loan guarantees and mandates.’

The cooking oil is collected from American restaurants and taken to a refinery in Lousiana. The final mixed product costs up to six times the £620 a tonne for regular jet fuel. Thomson have made a three year commitment to provide weekly biofuel flights, but hope to scale up numbers in future, although Cockburn says the current price of biofuel makes this impossible. ‘The purpose of these operations is to demonstrate to the investment community that there is a market for sustainable aviation biofuel, hopefully bringing forward the date that sustainable aviation biofuel becomes financially viable,’ he says.

Aviation Minister, Theresa Villiers, commended Thomson's pioneering approach to biofuelled flight in a statement to the Ecologist. ‘I very much welcome Thomson Airways' announcement and wish them well with this project,’ she said.‘We want aviation to flourish and grow but we have also been clear that the environmental impacts of flying must be addressed. I welcome the efforts being made by the UK aviation and aerospace industries to drive forward the technological change we need to tackle this challenge effectively.’

Vicky Wyatt, Senior Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace UK, is less optimistic about cooking oil’s potential, however. ‘There’s a real problem about scalability and whether you could ever produce large enough quantities of it to be a real solution for the aviation industry,’ she comments. ‘I think the answer to that would be a resounding “No.”’ There’s simply not enough, it’s only available in small quantities.’

However, Wyatt also noted that cooking oil was a cleaner alternative to first-generation and second-generation biofuels. Her main concern is that, despite these flaws, the aviation industry is continuing to pursue biofuels as a solution to reducing carbon emissions. According to Cockburn, Thomson sees the use of biofuel ‘as business as usual in the long run.’ ‘A lot of airlines are looking into the biofuels angle,’ adds Wyatt. ‘Greenpeace would argue that we don’t see biofuels as a silver bullet for reducing aviation emissions. The only feasible way to reduce emissions from the industry – or at least curtail their massive increase – is to push back on the kind of relentless pursuit of demand from the industry and its function, and try and invest in other forms of travel which produce lower levels of carbon emissions.’

Villiers argues, however, that biofuels are the only renewable alternative currently available, and as a result they should receive as much support as possible. ‘The Government believes that sustainable biofuels have a role to play in efforts to tackle climate change, particularly in sectors where no other viable low carbon energy source has been identified - as is the case with aviation.’

Biofuel flights are becoming increasingly popular, despite objections to both first and second-generation biofuels and cooking oil. At the end of June, Dutch airline KLM made its first flight using cooking oil from Amsterdam to Paris. The week before, Boeing made the first transatlantic biofuel flight from Washington State to Paris. Starting this September, Thomson expects to make weekly biofuel flights to Spain on the same route for one year, switching to Birmingham-Alicante during the winter. So does this mean that eco-friendly flights are something we will see in the near future? At the moment, the answer is still unclear.


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