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Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific seeks 80pc emissions reductions on some long flights with big switch to biofuels

Airline among world’s first to adopt fuels made largely from landfill rubbish

Cathay Pacific Airways has pledged an 80 per cent cut in the amount of climate-changing gases some of its longest flights pump into the Earth’s atmosphere, by betting big on biofuels.

The Hong Kong carrier will be one of the first airlines in the world to switch to cleaner jet fuels on an industrial scale.

The city is slowly strengthening its push to lessen its contribution to climate change, and the government aims to cut annual carbon emissions per person almost in half by 2030.

The aviation sector had avoided regulation until last year, when its governing body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, agreed a global deal to curb emissions growth by the end of the decade.

Cathay Pacific planes will use fuel made from landfill rubbish. Many of its flights from the United States, where the fuel is being produced, will be able to fly to Hong Kong using a half-half mix of biofuel and conventional fuel by 2019. It is on these trans-Pacific flights that the company expects the 80 per cent emissions reductions.

“Aviation biofuels will play a key role for Cathay and the aviation industry’s quest for lower emissions,” the airline’s biofuel manager, Jeff Ovens, said. “We are on the cusp of large-scale production of low-carbon jet fuel and are eager to use it.”

The high and notoriously unpredictable cost of fuel has forced the airline to control how much it uses. By – among other things – reducing aircraft weight, flying on more direct flight paths and only using one engine to taxi on runways, the company cut emissions and paved the way for the rethink of how it could further cut pollution.

“This is where biofuels come in,” Ovens said. “These fuels will have a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels, and the pricing we have is competitive with traditional fuels.”

Aside from the carbon dioxide reduction, using the mixed fuel avoids emissions of other harmful gases, like methane, given off as rubbish – which will instead be used as fuel – naturally degrades in landfill.

Cathay Pacific passengers are unlikely to see a rise in fares, because the biofuel investments since 2014 have been absorbed into the company’s operating costs. But it is too early to tell whether the switch could lower ticket prices.

Christine Loh Kung-wai, undersecretary at the Environment Bureau – which spearheaded the government’s 2030 climate action report – said: “I think the world as a whole has come to embrace dealing with climate change, and you are seeing major industry sectors coming forward to say they need to do more.”

But she said the lack of global rules on the production, infrastructure and supply of biofuels made long-term policymaking harder. “I think that is further down the road than we are able to make policies on,” she said.

Roy Tam Hoi-pong, CEO of Green Sense, an environmental pressure group, said the airline’s climate effort was a “good start”.

He said: “As one of Asia’s biggest airlines, they can do much more.”

Airlines occasionally test biofuels, mainly with used cooking oil, but not landfill waste.

United Airlines has started running some domestic flights on biofuels regularly, but even then in small quantities.

The airline’s new batch of Airbus A350 planes – themselves 25 per cent more fuel efficient than their forerunners – flew from France to Hong Kong for delivery using a small amount of biofuel.

The airline’s partnership with a US-based renewable fuel producer is on track to help make its flights from the US to Hong Kong International Airport, starting from 2019, greener.

Fulcrum Bioenergy and Cathay Pacific signed an agreement in 2014, helping the airline meet its biofuel supply targets, with a purchase of 375 million gallons of biofuel over 10 years.

That fuel would be enough to supply Cathay Pacific’s 76 weekly US flights to Hong Kong for six months.

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Boeing aims to quit fossil fuel habit with tobacco-based jet fuel

The scientific consensus around smoking being bad for your health is famously as solid as that which demonstrates how human activity is contributing to climate change. Now Boeing and partner South African Airways (SAA) may have found a way to tackle both problems by producing renewable jet fuel from a special type of tobacco plant.

The two companies have teamed up for a pilot project that has seen about 120 acres (50 hectares) in Limpopo province planted with Solaris, a nicotine-free, energy-rich tobacco plant. Oil from the plant’s seeds will be converted into jet fuel that Boeing says can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 80 percent.

In the next few years, SAA will conduct a test flight using the fuel, taking the next step on its drive to be “the world’s most environmentally sustainable airline.” In doing so, it will follow in the footsteps of a range of carriers, including BA, Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and most recently China’s Hainan Airlines, in experimenting with greener fuels. In fact, more than 1,600 passenger flights using sustainable aviation biofuel have been completed since the fuel was approved for commercial use in 2011.

Aviation industry embraces biofuels
Two years later, the industry committed to carbon neutral growth from 2020 (PDF), but is still struggling to work out exactly how to achieve that goal.

Darrin Morgan, director of Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ sustainable biofuel strategy, said airlines increasingly are turning to biofuels to reduce their emissions as the industry lacks other realistic options.

“Ground transport is electrifying as we speak. Power generation — they have many options to go towards renewables and decarbonize,” he told BusinessGreen. “Aviation doesn’t. We’re going to have to have liquid hydrocarbons for a very long time.”

The challenge for the industry is that the oil majors who supply them have made limited progress in delivering the lower-carbon fuels the sector craves. “Aviation uses only about 6 or 7 percent of total oil barrel use, so most of the oil companies view aviation as a very small player and it’s hard for them to justify the extra effort to supply our needs,” Morgan explained. “So part of why we realized we had to be so active in shaping the fuel landscape for ourselves is because we don’t have other options to diversify.”

Biofuels in South Africa

Biofuels plantations have been blamed for deforestation and other land-use change. Campaigners have warned these problems will get worse if airlines start demanding large quantities of alternative fuels.

Morgan suggests that in South Africa, at least, this should not be a problem. “About 14 percent of the arable land in South Africa is under-utilized or unutilized,” he said. “If just a small percentage of that 14 percent were used for Solaris or other similar feedstocks, you would provide enough fuel for all of SAA’s needs. It’s not displacing essential food crops [and] it’s a drop in the bucket in terms of total land footprint to produce quite a bit of what is needed.”

If Solaris reaches a critical mass in South Africa, Morgan can see the potential for investing in refineries in the country, churning out not just jet fuel, but also road transport fuel and renewable chemicals. This could revolutionize a country that as Morgan puts it, “failed to win the oil lottery” and, like many others in the region, relies on expensive imports of already refined petroleum.

Solaris is still in its early stages, so we will have to wait to get a picture of its true potential among the huge range of alternate fuels that will be needed to successfully decarbonize an aviation industry responsible for around 3 percent of global emissions.

Biofuels around the globe

Boeing is looking at a number of other options, including fuel from plants grown in the desert using saltwater, and it is optimistic that a range of bio-kerosenes promising to be both cleaner than standard fuels and with a greater energy density — essentially offering more power for less weight, a crucial property for aviation — soon will be certified for aviation use.

Currently, these fuels are sold for transport by Finland’s Neste Oil and Italian company ENI, but Morgan is convinced of the potential for aviation — he said the three refineries already open in Italy, Rotterdam and near Helsinki currently produce around 4 billion liters of bio-kerosene.

“Now on the global scale, that’s not very much, but for aviation that’s almost 2 percent of our fuels use with just these initial, first-of-their-kind renewable fuel plants,” he added.

The age of greener aviation may not have taken off just yet, but there are encouraging signs it is edging towards the runway.