State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Biofuels And Jet Travel

The sight of thousands of environmental advocates jetting to Paris or Rio for the latest climate conference has often been discussed when analysts assess the environmental footprints of these gatherings. Though I find these calculation exercises a little ridiculous, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from jet travel is a serious issue. While we can imagine an electric vehicle powered by renewable energy, air travel technology seems very dependent on fossil fuels — and the global economy remains highly dependent on air travel. Even though we can provide information and interact via phone, web and video, there is no substitute for humans sitting together and breaking bread. What can we do about air travel? Last week, Jet Blue demonstrated that it is possible to take one small step in a sustainable direction. According to Diane Cardwell of the New York Times:

“JetBlue, seeking to get ahead of looming restrictions on airliners’ greenhouse gas pollution, has agreed to buy more than 330 million gallons of renewable fuel over 10 years, the company said on Monday. It is one of the largest such purchase agreements yet. Under the agreement with the bioenergy company SG Preston, JetBlue would cover about 20 percent of its annual fuel use at Kennedy International Airport, its home base, with a biofuel blend. That is equivalent to 4 percent of the fuel used throughout its network, the airline said.”

Biofuels may be a wasteful way of powering motor vehicles, but could be a useful way of reducing the use of fossil fuels for air travel. Jet Blue’s long-term commitment can help build the market and infrastructure for aircraft biofuels. In the future, we will need a different technology for air travel, but it seems a long way off. Given the amount of money that airlines pay for fuel, a less expensive way of powering a jet makes economic sense. Unfortunately, biofuels hold only limited promise for reduced fossil fuel use over the near term due to the low price of oil. Cardwell mentions that Lufthansa and United Airlines are also considering biofuels, and there is some movement among international and U.S. regulatory agencies to require biofuels in a jet’s fuel mix. In addition to biofuels, the U.N. is trying to build on the Paris climate agreement by setting goals for jet emissions. The United Nation’s International Civil Aviation Organization is hoping to approve an agreement next week to cap emissions from international air travel. While these targets have many loopholes and exemptions, and will largely be met by the purchase of offsets, they do signal the direction the world is heading in.

Companies like Jet Blue see the future and are moving ahead on sustainability issues, in part to brand themselves and connect to customers who care about these issues. The significance of these initiatives is that visible and important consumer companies know that the cost differential is small and is made up in customer loyalty. These are important steps in building awareness, but must be followed with new technologies that facilitate deep systemic change.

Recognizing the greenhouse gas pollution caused by air travel, NASA has begun a small-scale research effort to address this issue. This summer, NASA announced its:

Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program for a two-year study. The topics, including three specifically targeted at electrically-propelled aircraft are:

  • alternative fuel cells;
  • using 3-D printing to increase electric motor output;
  • the use of lithium-air batteries for energy storage;
  • new mechanisms for changing the shape of an aircraft wing in flight; and
  • the use of a lightweight material called aerogel in the design and development of aircraft antenna.

These five concepts, in addition to three of the six selected in 2015, address NASA’s green aviation initiatives to cut fuel use by half, lower harmful emissions by 75 percent, and significantly reduce aircraft noise.

NASA acknowledges that there is no guarantee that these ideas will be practical, feasible or cost effective, but just like Jet Blue’s effort, NASA is attempting to define and address the substantial greenhouse gas impact of air travel. These small first steps are important even if they lack drama.

Air travel presents a vivid example of the degree to which sustainability problems stem from our modern way of life. The answer for some is to do without. An all too common response by some environmental advocates is that virtue can only be achieved by denial. Since I have no confidence that denial is a winning strategy in mass politics or mass economic production and consumption, I think it is very important that we identify technologies and organizational practices that allow us to enjoy our modern way of life without damaging the environment.

Global communication and global travel have transformed economic life in our world and have been important tools in improving quality of life for many. They have transformed our world’s culture in ways that we do not yet fully understand. The foreign is increasingly familiar, and in a less positive vein, a homogenized world culture is emerging. Young people are mastering social media, the first truly global institution that has ever been developed. They follow the images they see and the virtual relationships they build with travel and live interaction. While this is far from a universal phenomenon, it is a growing one. Many poor young people can see global images, but don’t have resources to touch them. Still, travel has become a mass phenomenon. In the 1950s and 1960s, jet travel was limited to the rich and high-level business executives making relatively rare deals. Today, many people, including those who do not occupy executive suites, travel for business. We are all aware of the use of social media and travel by terrorists and criminals, but I guarantee you the positive and beneficial use of these technologies far exceed the use by criminals. (My favorite positive image is the opening and closing montage of the film Love Actually, depicting friends and families reuniting at an airport.)

And we benefit from the exchange and ideas generated due to air travel. The answer to environmental problems is not typically to eliminate the behaviors that cause the problems, but to study the impact of pollution on the planet’s wellbeing, regulate the behaviors that cause pollution, and then develop new technologies and practices to comply with regulations. We have had a great deal of success in pursuing this approach to environmental sustainability. In the United States, air pollution, water pollution, and the releases of toxics into the environment have all been reduced as our economy has grown. Many parts of the country are reducing greenhouse gas emissions while they increase energy efficiency and modernize their energy system. Once the Courts permit the Clean Power Plan, we will see even more progress on greenhouse gas reduction.

It may be annoying to see wealthy and famous people jet in their private aircraft from environmental conferences to sustainability media events. But the benefits of their advocacy are worth the cost of their self-indulgence. Sustainability advocates must be about building coalitions and broadening support—not creating a politically correct but smug, self-satisfied permanent minority. Jet Blue and NASA have the right idea. Let’s take the first small steps in building the technology and business models most appropriate to a renewable resource-based sustainable economy.

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