Raise your hand if you’re flying this holiday season. Yeah, me too. Sure, you can buy offsets from the likes of TerraPass and ClimateCare. But those are just indulgences for the emissions our flights are already creating. For climate change’s sake, I wish there were a way to cut down on the emissions in the first place.
Fortunately, there could be one sometime soon. Next month, Boeing and Air New Zealand will launch the first commercial flight powered at least in part with sustainably grown biofuel. And that comes on the heels of the first commercial biofuel flight (in the not-necessarily sustainably sourced category) back in February, staged by Boeing and Virgin Atlantic Airways. And that, in turn, came after the first private jet-powered flight using biodiesel in October 2007. It’s been quite a year.
The Air New Zealand flight, which will take place in Auckland, will be powered by a blend of traditional fossil fuel-based jet fuel and fuel made from jatropha plants, which were grown on environmentally sustainable farms in India, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. The experimentation with jatropha, a succulent whose seeds contain an inedible oil that can be converted into fuel, is good news for those concerned about the tradeoff between growing crops for fuel vs. growing crops for food. The Guardian recently reported that it would take a land mass the size of Europe to produce enough biofuel from soybeans to keep the world’s 13,000 commercial aircraft in the air. Jatropha, however, can grow in arid and otherwise unarable lands, leaving more fertile areas for food production.
Jatropha is so promising that it’s one of two potential sources of biofuel being investigated by the newly formed Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group. The organization, launched in September, is a collaboration between Boeing, a handful of airlines that account for 15 percent of commercial jet fuel use, and both the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Wildlife Fund. It marks an exciting development for those interested in eco-friendly flying. Not only is the group looking for alternatives to fossil fuels, but it wants any new biofuels to be grown sustainably. The group says new sources of energy should adhere to four sustainability criteria: They won’t compete with food sources and don’t imperil drinking water; the resulting fuel must produce less greenhouse gases than comparable amounts of fuel made from fossil fuels; their crops must not require the involuntary displacement of local populations; and they also should not require the clearing of conservation areas.
All of these developments are enormously encouraging for folks like me who want to continue flying. Strict environmentalists still argue that the best way to reduce greenhouse gases from flying is not to fly at all. And, of course, they’re right. But while some of us still need to make those periodic trips to visit our grandmothers halfway across the country, the progress on the biofuel front is reason for hope.