Biofuel vital for improving sustainability of aviation industry

Action needed soon

As a result of the strong growth in the aviation industry, the CO2 emissions produced by the sector are set to rise rapidly in the years ahead. The use of sustainably produced biofuels is an essential element of structurally reducing these emissions. However, researchers from institutions including Utrecht University and the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN) argue that several obstacles will need to be overcome in order to stimulate the use of biofuels. Action needs to be taken without delay. The researchers published their recommendations on 22 February 2017.

Gulf between growth and ambition

Air traffic accounts for more than two per cent of global CO2 emissions. The aviation industry has expressed its ambition to stabilise these emissions from 2020, and by 2050, to halve emissions compared to 2005 levels. However, due to the rapid growth in the sector, there is the danger of a gulf forming between the expected rise in emissions and the sector’s ambition. The researchers quantified that, despite efficiency improvements, this gulf could amount to 232 million tonnes of CO2 between 2020 and 2030 within the European Union alone.

KLM Biofuel
KLM-airplane that flies on a combination of kerosene-based fuel and biofuel. Source: KLM

Biofuel essential

In addition to efficiency improvements, the fuel that is used needs to be more sustainable. Whereas there are various sustainable alternatives for reducing CO2 emissions when it comes to road transport – such as electric or hydrogen vehicles – for the time being, the only technological alternative open to the aviation industry is biofuel.

Biofuels are made from biomass, such as residual organic matter from agriculture or forestry. A major precondition is that the sustainability is guaranteed. The fact is that CO2 savings can vary significantly depending on the type of biomass, where the biofuel is produced and the technology used; emission reductions of up to 95% can be achieved if the biofuel is produced sustainably.

A few euros per passenger

Biofuels are currently only used (blended with regular fuel) at a few of the world’s airports. This research aimed to determine what is required in order to increase biofuel usage. The researchers note that the price represents a major stumbling block. After all, who is going to cover the additional costs? Replacing five per cent of all regular aviation fuel within the EU with biofuel by 2030 will cost upwards of €10 billion. The researchers calculated that this equates to a few euros per passenger. Due to fierce competition and the international character of the sector, it is difficult to offset these costs at national level.

Furthermore, in contrast to sustainable solutions in the road transport and electricity sectors, structural policy to stimulate the use of biofuels in the aviation industry is yet to be put into place at international level. International agreements will therefore need to be reached to promote the use of biofuels in the aviation sector.

Now is the time to begin

If the targets set out at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris are to be achieved, it is important that CO2 emissions are significantly reduced. And this naturally also applies to the aviation industry. In order to boost the production of biofuels, the entire production chain needs to be further developed. These developments take time. The researchers conclude that making strategic decisions now and focusing on the development of sustainable biofuels for the aviation sector will enable us to realise the necessary reductions in emissions in the sector by the mid-21st century.

About the research

This research was conducted as part of the Renewable Jet Fuel Supply Chain and Flight Operations (RENJET) project, in collaboration with the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN). The RENJET project (2013-2016) was funded by EIT Climate-KIC. The objective of RENJET is to lay the foundations for upscaling production of biofuels for the aviation industry through scientific research and demonstration projects. The project partners are Utrecht University, Imperial College London, SkyNRG, KLM and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

Download the report Renewable Jet Fuel in the European Union

Contact researcher Sierk de Jong, Utrecht University,, +31 (0)30 253 5524.