Hannah Walker - RSB
Written by
Hannah Walker
Marketing and Communications Manager at The Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB); climate activist in the making 

What Airline Passengers Should Know about the Future of Biofuels

“They cause deforestation”
“They increase food prices”
“They don’t prevent climate change”
These are all common claims made about biofuels and they make for alarming reading. But are they true?
The answer, as is usually the case, is in shades of grey. Biofuels can have serious negative consequences. Equally, they can be made in such a way that has incredible climate impact, protects forests and other ecosystems and ensures food security, land rights and more. In fact, some of the most innovative alternative fuels are being made from waste materials, including recycled carbon, which further reduces many environmental and social risks. Since this new generation of fuels does not necessarily have a bio-based component, we will be calling them “alternative fuels” for the rest of this article.
What are Alternative Aviation Fuels?   Alternative aviation fuels – sometimes known as sustainable aviation fuels or biofuels – are low-carbon alternatives for the aviation industry. These non-petroleum-based drop-in aviation fuels are generally produced from bio-based feedstocks including waste, residues and end-of-life products – as well as fossil waste. The use of alternative aviation fuels, along with other efficiencies in operations and aircraft design, is intended to reduce the industry’s growing share of greenhouse gas emissions and lower the overall climate impact of aviation.
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We know that people are concerned about the real impacts of travel – so in a world of information overload how do passengers differentiate the ‘good’ alternative fuels from the ‘bad’ ones before they board?
There are broadly three concerns about the use of alternative fuels: social, environmental and climate impact – and to make a rational choice about the fuels they use, consumers would need to ask the following questions:
  • Does the production of this fuel take away from food production and increase food prices or reduce the availability of food? (No)
  • Are people being exploited in the production of this fuel? (No)
  • Has this fuel been produced using material sourced from land where land rights have been respected and consent has been granted by land rights holders? (Yes)
  • Does the production of this fuel uplift the communities in which it occurs? (Yes)
  • Are ecosystems – including forests – and biodiversity negatively impacted by the production of the fuel? (No)
  • Is soil health maintained? (Yes)
  • Is surface and groundwater quality assured? (Yes)
  • Does the fuel production contribute to air pollution? (No)
  • Does this fuel ensure a meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reduction compared to a conventional one? (Yes)
  • If your fuel provider got all those questions right, and can prove it, they could make a powerful claim – you will be flying on truly sustainable fuel.
    The amazing potential of alternative fuels
    LanzaTech’s demonstration plant with Shougang in China, converting steel mill gases to ethanol, was the first RSB-certified biofuel plant in China, and the first of its kind anywhere to receive this key certification for industrial carbon capture and utilisation. Ethanol, from the RSB-certified demonstration plant, was converted to drop in jet fuel, used in a world first commercial flight with Virgin Atlantic in 2018. Through utilisation of waste emissions, LanzaTech enables local production of low carbon fuels which displace the need for fresh fossil inputs; it creates new green employment at waste sites, and by avoiding combustion of gases, the process reduces criteria pollutants which would impact local communities.
    In reality travellers won’t find getting these answers easy. But it is absolutely essential that any use of alternative fuels is subjected to a rigorous analysis of whether they can fulfil these requirements and offer truly sustainable, long-term solutions for aviation – without causing harm to people and the planet. These fuels, which can deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while requiring no changes to existing aircraft and infrastructure, offer the most effective and immediate solution to an industry looking to decarbonise rapidly. While advances in air traffic management, infrastructure efficiency and other operational measures will help to reduce emissions, if the industry is to achieve its target of carbon neutral growth from 2020 and a 50% reduction on 2005 emissions levels by 2050, the fuel in aircraft tanks will be the most important source of savings.
    Such fuels have the potential to offer both greenhouse gas reductions and a credible approach to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and so could deliver key emissions savings to carriers and passengers – without compromising social development and environmental protection. Ensuring that we get them right – so that the cure is not worse than the disease – will be essential for passengers to continue travelling in the years to come.
    Fortunately for passengers, there is a system in place that helps the industry to make the best choice when it comes to fuel.
    The RSB has worked with organizations around the world – including NGOs, civil, society, governments, academia and fuel producers – to develop a standard that is considered the most credible and most trusted available.
    RSB - Aviation Project Map with title
    The RSB Standard is a tool that can be used by everyone involved in the production and use of aviation fuel (and other products) to confirm real environmental and social sustainability in every part of its journey from field and factory to tank.
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    An RSB-certified fuel shows the world that it has been produced in an environmentally, socially and economically responsible way.
    Travelling on an RSB-certified fuel also guarantees a minimum of 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring that key issues like deforestation, food security, water quality, land and human rights have been taken care of.
    RSB is dedicated to helping airlines and the aviation industry make the best possible choices in the years ahead as the fight against climate change shifts into a higher gear. The RSB system is helping the industry unlock the real and meaningful sustainability that passengers demand and that will not only aid in combating climate change, but also create new green jobs, support social upliftment and protect ecosystems.


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