Nothing but Green Skies If You Fly These Airlines

An environmental group rates companies' efforts to cut aviation carbon emissions.

(Photo: Guido Mieth/Getty Images)

Feb 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

What’s in a jet fuel? If you’re flying on one of these environmentally friendly airliners, vegetable oil, desert plants, or some other biofuel concoction could be powering the engines.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 40 commercial airlines have flown around 600,000 miles powered at least partly by biofuels. That may not make much of a dent yet in the 640 million metric tons of carbon pollution emitted by the airline industry annually, but it’s a start.

Now, for the first time, NRDC has ranked the commercial airline companies working the hardest to reduce their carbon footprint with the use of sustainable biofuels.

The early leaders include Air France/KLM, British Airways, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, and Alaska Airlines.

“It’s great to see certain airlines becoming leaders in the use of sustainable biofuels,” said Debbie Hammel, senior resource specialist with NRDC and author of the scorecard. “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.”

Right now, the International Panel for Climate Change identifies the aviation industry as responsible for 2 percent of the world’s global emissions, which could rise to 3 percent by 2050.

Adopting sustainably sourced biofuels is part of the industry’s plan to try to keep its emissions from increasing any further by 2020, with a goal to cut its emissions by half by 2050. Between sugarcane fields in Brazil, used cooking oil, and “green diesel” truck fuel, the options for biofuel are broad and still in the early stages of development.

“How airlines move forward is still up in the air,” Hammel said. “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.”

Getting sustainable biofuel production to a capacity and at a price that can affect the industry’s emissions output is something airplane manufacturer Boeing thinks it might have the key to.

The company believes there is capacity to get as much as 600 million gallons—about 1 percent of the aviation industry’s annual fuel budget—of green diesel fuel that emits 50 percent less carbon dioxide than fossil fuel.

“The wholesale cost of green diesel—about $3 a gallon with U.S. government incentives—is competitive with petroleum jet fuel,” Boeing outlined in a 2014 environmental report. “Green diesel, also called ‘renewable diesel,’ can be used in any diesel engine, which means that, if approved for use in aviation, it could be used extensively by airlines, cargo operations or government agencies with ground, sea and air operations.”

In total, 17 of the 32 airlines NRDC contacted responded to its survey.

Below are airlines that participated; NRDC graded them in five categories, including current level of biofuel adoption, efforts to obtain certified sustainably sourced biofuel, disclosing the use of biofuels to the public, and monitoring the life cycle of greenhouse gas emissions of the biofuel chosen to be tested.

The results are scored out of a point total of 23:

Air France/KLM: 20
British Airways: 14
United Airlines: 14
Virgin Atlantic: 14
Cathay Pacific: 13.5
Alaska Airlines: 13
Virgin Australia: 8.5
Air New Zealand: 7.5
GOL: 7
Qantas: 6

TUI Travel: 4.5
All Nippon Airlines: 4
Japan Airlines: 4
Jet Blue: 4
Singapore Airlines: 4
South African Airways 4
Finnair: 2