Bloomberg is pointing out another problem with the “landmark” accord reached earlier this month among world airlines and civil aviation officials to achieve “carbon neutral growth” by 2020, and cut sector emissions in half by 2050: The goals anticipate burning vast quantities of a fuel that “nobody has ever been able to produce in the volumes needed.”
An industry accord reached earlier this month at the triennial meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal committed manufacturers and operators to achieve steady improvements in aircraft efficiency, Bloomberg notes. But it also relied heavily on other means to achieve carbon neutrality—including a controversial carbon offset mechanism, and the wide adoption of non-fossil biofuels. It’s the last of these strategies that analysts are now questioning.
“Airlines began testing biofuels in 2008, and have since used them on more than 1,500 passenger flights,” Bloomberg notes. But the global biofuel industry has a total annual production capacity of only about 100 million gallons of jet fuel, just 0.12 of the 83 billion gallons or more that airlines burn every year.
And the industry foresees a 100 to 200% increase in air travel volumes between 2000 and 2050.
“Investments in biofuel, meanwhile, are at a record low,” Bloomberg observes, “with $322 million globally during the first six months of 2016, off 64% from 2015 and down 98% from a decade ago, when ethanol production for automobiles took off.”
That means scaling up biofuel production to a level that could make a dent in civil aviation emissions “is still a pipe dream,” said Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst Claire Curry. “No one has figured out how to make these fuels at scale yet. The technologies are really complicated. They often don’t work. And the plants can cost half a billion dollars to build.”