Airlines must use their market power to ensure biofuels meet the highest sustainability standards, says NRDC

Airlines must use their market power to ensure biofuels meet the highest sustainability standards, says NRDC | NRDC

Tue 10 Feb 2015 – An evaluation by US NGO Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) of sustainability standards followed by airlines using or intending to use biofuels finds the industry has made great strides in adopting such fuels with some airlines doing better than others on sustainability issues. This is the second annual report by NRDC on aviation biofuels but the first to name and score airlines on an individual basis according to a set of sustainability criteria. Airlines were scored on their participation in industry initiatives to promote sustainability certification, public commitments in sourcing, and the monitoring and disclosure of important sustainability metrics. Airlines with the highest scores include Air France-KLM, British Airways, United, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific and Alaska. Airlines that might have expected to have performed well such as Lufthansa and American did not respond to the survey.


“It’s great to see certain airlines becoming leaders in the use of sustainable biofuels,” said Debbie Hammel, Senior Resource Specialist with NRDC’s Land & Wildlife Program and author of the ‘Aviation Biofuel Sustainability Scorecards’ report.


“As the world rises to the challenge of curbing climate change and cutting carbon pollution, addressing air travel pollution has to be part of the mix. The aviation sector has been pretty proactive about this issue, and an industry-wide increase in the use of sustainably produce biofuels is definitely on the horizon.”


The scorecard is intended to encourage airlines to use their market power to persuade suppliers of the importance of sustainability certification and also to make a public commitment to source fully certified sustainable biofuels.


Biofuel operators are making long-term design, employment and operational decisions to optimise production for the requirements of their marketplace, and many are now focusing on aviation as a key market, said Hammel in an NRDC blog.


“Sending a clear signal that production must be compatible with sustainability standards and independently audited and verified through credible certification programs such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) will cause operators to proactively build this into their planning and operations. This will incentivise upstream biofuel operators to pursue compliance and certification,” she said.


NRDC sent questionnaires to 32 airlines that have either used biofuels or have indicated they are planning to use them, and the 17 responses received were evaluated for the scorecard assessment.


The scorecard addressed five key areas:

  • Airline membership in sustainability standards organisations or other groups working to promote sustainability certification in aviation biofuel development;
  • Airlines’ public commitments to the use of sustainability certification in biofuel sourcing;
  • Airline disclosures related to biofuel use, sustainable-certified biofuel use and percentage of sustainable-certified biofuels used relative to total biofuel use;
  • Airlines’ monitoring and disclosures related to the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions profile of the biofuels they source; and
  • Airline actions to determine the indirect land use change (ILUC) impacts of the biofuels they source, and to engage in efforts to better understand, manage and avoid ILUC impacts in biofuel production.


The findings showed that only one airline is a direct member of the RSB, although 16 of the 17 respondents are members of the industry’s 28-strong Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), which is a member of the RSB and represents their interests. The survey found that only two of the airlines that responded have made contractual arrangements to use RSB certification in their sourcing efforts. The NRDC therefore calls on SAFUG to make a firm commitment to use the certification framework created by the RSB.


Having found that less than half of respondents said they were researching or monitoring the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels and ILUC, compared to a majority in last year’s survey, the NGO urges airlines to strive for total transparency in the volumes, greenhouse gas profile and sustainable certification used in aviation biofuel sourcing.


It also recommends that airlines that do not already have dedicated biofuels staff should hire specialists to focus on this fuel. The survey found that one airline had two full-time staff focused on biofuels and three responded they had one. All the other airlines said they had one or several people who devote some of their time to this subject.


“How airlines move forward is still up in the air,” concludes Hammel. “While some in the industry have made real progress in implementing sustainability commitments this past year, there’s more to do. The industry must commit to robust standards for sourcing these fuels to ensure that they’re truly sustainable in the long term.”




NRDC – Debbie Hammel’s aviation biofuels blog

NRDC – ‘Aviation Biofuel Sustainability Scorecards’ (pdf)





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