Biofuels: Will They Mean Carbon Neutral Air Travel?

Aiming to live a carbon neutral lifestyle is more important than ever before. Growing awareness of the impact of burning fossil fuels has convinced most people that their activities are directly responsible for the global climate changes that are becoming apparent. Living in a way that reduces your carbon footprint is not that easy but many people do manage to cut down their carbon emissions by reducing the waste heat they lose from their homes, and by thinking more carefully about using the car for short journeys.

Buying food and services locally rather than importing them is also a good idea but when it comes to holidays, our resolutions to become carbon neutral tend to fly out of the window as the thought of an exotic holiday in the Sun takes hold. We have become very used to hopping on planes for holidays in southern Europe, Mexico, Turkey, the Dominican Republic or further afield.

Air Travel has a Large Carbon Footprint

Aircraft use vast amounts of fuel and the carbon emissions produced by the air travel carriers are increasing more quickly than any other commercial activity. The proportion of emissions produced by the UK and other individual countries in Europe is also increasing because we are all managing to cut back on the amount of emissions produced by energy consumption in industry and in the home.

Putting a planned holiday into a carbon calculator online can tell you just how much difference this will make to your annual carbon budget – and it is usually quite a shock. Estimates show that the average flight over the Atlantic, the equivalent of a long-haul holiday flight, produces the same amount of carbon as running your car or your central heating for a whole year. Some people are choosing to spend holidays in the UK instead – partly for environmental reasons and partly because cost is more of an issue. The cost of air travel is going up as oil prices continue to escalate, and with the recession still biting at most people’s living expenses, holidays are an expensive luxury that many of us can no longer afford.

But if you do have the money, but you are still trying to keep your carbon emissions down, is there any hope?

EU Emissions Cap

It was announced at the start of 2011 that the European Commission has set up new regulations about the amount of carbon emissions that can be produced by air craft in Europe. They have set a ‘cap’, which is a maximum amount that can be produced in one year. Air lines can either reduce their emissions, or they have to pay an extra fee to cover projects that will provide carbon offsets.

The current cap, which applies until 2012, is 212.9 million tons of carbon dioxide and this represents a reduction of about 3 per cent compared to what the airlines were producing 5 years ago. In 2013, there will be a further tightening of the cap, and overall, every year between 2013 and 2020 should see carbon emissions reduced by about 5% compared to 2005.

Many airlines may pay the fee and then pass this onto the cost of customers’ tickets, which will increase the cost of trips even further.

Are Biofuels the Answer?

There is quite a lot of controversy about biofuels and their use in aviation. There has certainly been intensive research into new fuels, but nothing is yet available for use by commercial airlines. Calculations show that biofuels could reduce carbon emissions by aircraft by around 80 per cent, so would solve the problem virtually immediately. However, developing a suitable biofuel is likely to take several years yet.

Biofuels are also being questioned generally because they may not be as ecofriendly as was originally hoped. Biofuels are based on living material – usually plants grown as crops that are then harvested for fuel production rather than the food supply. There have been cases where land in developing countries and resource poor regions has been given over to biofuel production, thereby making it unavailable for growing food for local people. This has caused local hardship and has reduced the amount of food sold in that country, and internationally. Some experts believe that it is a major factor in the increase in food prices during the last decade.