Global Carbon Project Reports 2018 Record Year for Carbon Emissions. Airlines Look To Change That

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In a trio of scientific papers released by the Global Carbon Project at a climate summit in Poland, the Project’s researchers report that in 2018 global emissions of carbon dioxide reached the highest levels on record.

The report flies in the face of presumed progress that has been made since climate change became a high priority worldwide—a priority that became even more solidified in the historic 2015 Paris Agreement.

But, as we covered in a blog highlighting various innovations that can help save the planet, technologies that can reduce environmental impact on a large scale are set for takeoff. Airline companies like JetBlue and Virgin Atlantic are testing the use of biofuels to lower carbon emissions for a transportation sector that cannot divert to electric power.

In a piece for Fast Company, Adele Peters highlights some of the work biotech companies like LanzaTech are doing to develop new biofuels for airlines.

At a steel mill outside Beijing, reactors attached to the building capture emissions from the factory. Those waste gases can then be turned into fuel. LanzaTech, a biotech startup that designed a way to turn those emissions into ethanol, recently blended that ethanol into jet fuel that powered a Virgin Atlantic flight from Orlando to London.

While many cars manufactured today can run on electricity—or a combination of electricity and gas—airlines are not afforded the same opportunity. For some short-distance domestic flights, electricity is an option. But, to make significant progress on reducing overall emissions of the aviation sector—thus reducing carbon emissions from international flights and long-distance flights—new, cleaner fuels, like LanzaTech’s biofuel from waste, will need to be developed and used.  Luckily, the industry has already made progress in incorporating theses biofuels.

For most flights, the industry is beginning to turn to new fuels. In September, JetBlue made its first flight using a renewable blend fuel. Though chemically identical to regular jet fuel, 15.5% of it came from used cooking oil from restaurants, which otherwise would have been wasted. Next year, the airline will begin buying around 33 million gallons of biofuel a year, or about 20% of the fuel it uses annually at JFK.

A few days before JetBlue’s first biofuel flight, United flew a 787 from San Francisco to Zurich with a fuel made partly from a mustard seed-based biofuel (for now, all of these fuels are blends for safety reasons, though fuels that use no fossil ingredients may be possible in the future).

However, getting more airlines to take advantage of these cleaner fuels requires a steady supply of biofuels. As United Airline’s Senior Manager for Environmental Strategy and Sustainability Aaron Robinson noted in the piece, “If we went out to the market and said, ‘Hey, we want to buy some more biofuels for aviation’ today, there just isn’t supply for us to buy.”

To help solve this challenge, more public investment into research and development of biofuels is needed.

Support from the public sector could help, similar to grants from the Department of Energy that helped Fulcrum get off the ground in Nevada.

For this reason, funding for the Farm Bill’s Energy Title, which includes programs that provide loans and grants to companies developing advanced biofuels, is critical.

Of course, biofuels are just part of the equation. New technologies outside of biofuels will need to be developed so that the airline industry can ultimately reach zero emissions—a goal that may not be as far off as some think.

A recent report created by the Energy Transitions Commission found that airlines, along with other industries that have particularly difficult climate challenges, can feasibly reach net zero emissions by the middle of the century.

To read the full Fast Company piece, click here.