Monday, 18 July 2011

Airlines, the EU-ETS and Biofuels

The ever-informative news aggregators at Climate Connect have done an interesting wrap up of European airlines' efforts to prepare for inclusion in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS).  From 2012, airlines that operate from the EU will have to keep their greenhouse gas emissions within a cap set by regulators, or else buy carbon credits for their excesses.

Airlines are pursuing various measures to escape the cost of buying allowances or offsets.  Some, like those in China and the U.S., are suing.  Most European based airlines, however, are looking at ways to reduce their emissions without necessarily reducing the number of flights.  Key in these efforts is a switch to biofuels.  As Climate Connect reports, KLM has begun operating commercial flights between Paris and Amsterdam using a biokerosene blend derived from used cooking oil.  Lufthansa will use a 50% biofuel blend in one engine on flights between Hamburg and Frankfurt (planes are designed to fly and land safely on one engine). And British Airways is planning to procure modest amounts of biofuel from municipal waste by 2014.

All of this is superficially encouraging, until you consider the routes on which they are using these more "environmentally friendly" fuels.  Paris to Amsterdam is 500 km (300 miles).  That's 3 hours 18 minutes from city centre to city centre by rail.  By air it's a 1 hour 15 minutes flightr, plus 2 hours check-in and travel out to the airport for a total journey time that's the same or even longer than taking the train. The time savings are more in the airlines' favour on the Frankfurt-Hamburg route, but not by much.

Who exactly is making all those flights, and why?
I understand that the airlines want to test the use of biofuels on routes where there's somewhere safe to land if things go wrong - the mid-Atlantic is not the place to discover there's a problem.  However, I worry that making too much noise about their pioneering use of biofuels on extremely short-haul flights raises reputational risks for the airlines.  Greenhouse gas emissions from short-haul airplane flights are about 10X those of rail travel. Using biofuels to cut those emissions by 20% or so does not make short-haul flights an environmentally benign option, especially when more sustainable alternatives already exist.