Can flying ever be sustainable? I often hear this question from eco-conscious friends and neighbours. It takes an enormous amount of energy to lift aircraft, passengers and cargo from the ground and transport them thousands of kilometers to final destinations. 

Many people feel personal guilt knowing that that their own flight seat purchase generates greenhouse gases.Fewer people may know that air travel is already very efficient. An airplane flying from New York to Los Angeles gets the equivalent of about 80 miles per gallon per passenger. Airlines have focused on saving energy, as jet fuel is their number one cost, and they have a great track record of success in doing so. 

However, passenger demand is growing faster than efficiency improvements. Air travel emissions are projected to surpass automobiles, tripling current totals, within the next three decades. Unlike buildings and cars, aircraft cannot swap current fuel combustion for zero-carbon technology.

Instead, we can decarbonise our fuel. Sustainable aviation fuel can reduce CO2 by 80 per cent or more. Waste oils, plants grown on marginal lands, and cover crops are sustainable feedstocks that can be converted to jet fuel. These biofuels are certified safe by governments and aircraft manufacturers. Through conscious actions, sustainable aviation fuel is available without adding pressure to food crops or critical habitat.

Virgin Unite, Carbon War Room, aviation

Although new biofuel production is increasing, the fuel is not currently cost-effective for airlines. High prices reduce demand and delay broader adoption. My colleagues and I at Carbon War Room, which in 2014 merged with Rocky Mountain Institute, have designed a program to help solve the cost barrier. We refined the model with our partner SkyNRG, a global market leader in the blending, distribution, and sales of sustainable jet fuel worldwide.

We are working with visionary airports that are pushing the sustainability envelope and playing a new role helping to finance the biofuel premium. For the first time, we will see airports help lead the charge to accelerate the deployment of biofuels. 

Carbon War Room’s model for airport leadership

Sustainable aviation fuels remain relatively new compared with conventional jet fuel, which means the time is ripe for innovative technologies, creative business models, and new ideas around capital flow. As we work to resolve the challenge at the airport level, entrepreneurs, businesses and researchers can complement our efforts by focusing on innovations at the operational and technological level.

Refining technologies can gain efficiency, new commercial production facilities are needed, the supply chain could be enhanced to promote more seamless transactions and logistics, and R&D could help to expand the options for safe and sustainable feedstocks, helping to overcome potential challenges with supply.

Watch our video above to learn more about the opportunities in sustainable aviation. 

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