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Waste-to-jet fuel plant highlights the opportunities and limitations of alternative fuels

British Airways this week announced plans for their pilot facility, in partnership with Solena Fuels and known as the ‘Green Sky project’, which converts landfill waste into alternative fuels for aviation, to be built in Thurrock, Essex. The company estimates that the plant could produce 50,000 tonnes of aviation fuel every year from waste earmarked for landfill. BA have committed to purchasing all aviation fuel produced at the site for the next 11 years which, they say, could produce carbon savings each year equivalent of taking 150,000 cars off the roads.

We welcome efforts by the industry to reduce emissions…

AEF welcomes BA’s acknowledgement that the industry needs to find ways to reduce its emissions. But in 2010, when BA first announced that it was planning the waste to jet fuel plant we commented that the plan should be taken “with a pinch of salt”, arguing that the reduction needed to be seen in a much wider context. This remains true today and in fact Willie Walsh, the CEO of BA’s parent company IAG, now publicly acknowledges that this is the case. On BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme (16th April 2014) he admitted that the plant represented just a small part of BA’s sustainability programme but argued that they were putting their money where their mouth is and investing in something that isn’t yet economically viable but with potential for being scaled up.

…but the role of biofuels shouldn’t be overplayed

Committee on Climate Change (2009), Meeting the UK Aviation target – options for reducing emissions to 2050
Committee on Climate Change (2009), Meeting the UK Aviation target – options for reducing emissions to 2050

Alternative fuels could play a part in addressing aviation’s carbon emissions but their role should not be overplayed. Even if the plant produces all of the jet fuel that BA has predicted, it could only produce 2% of BA’s total annual fuel consumption at most, potentially reducing the company’s CO2 emissions by around 1%. The graph above was produced by the Committee on Climate Change and shows the contribution different levels of biofuel could make to tackling the UK’s aviation emissions. In short, even a speculatively high level delivery of biofuels would have only a small role in reducing aviation emissions.

Despite Willie Walsh now acknowledging the limited potential of the Solena facility, the Government’s aviation policy from 2013 devoted a whole page uncritically endorsing the Green Sky Project. While it is the role of BA to promote their products, the Government should consider the challenges, namely that:

  • BA are not transparent when it comes to disclosing the details of the full life cycle carbon benefits of the waste-to-jet fuel, which is produced using a very energy intensive process. They say that the carbon savings would be equivalent to taking 150,000 cars off the roads but BA are not upfront about how much CO2 is emitted in production and use of 50,000 tonnes of their waste fuel.
  • Progress has been slow: our article back in 2010 reported that BA predicted by 2014 they would be producing 16 million gallons of bio-jet fuel. The project is still yet to gain planning permission.
  • The IPCC say that efforts to tackle climate change are needed urgently. While the aviation sector’s emissions continue to rapidly grow, the Green Sky Project is an example that technology improvements remain comparatively slow.

Image credit: Argonne National Laboratory via Flickr