Tag Archives: Air Canada

Air Canada backs project to build biofuels supply chain for airports

An earlier version was originally published in the Toronto Star.

Canada’s aviation sector made history in 2012 after a number of test flights showed that renewable jet fuel could be blended with regular fuel without affecting airplane performance.

It started in April, when Porter Airlines used a blend of 50 per cent “biojet” fuel on a Bombardier turboprop, which successfully flew from the Toronto island airport to Ottawa. Two months later, Air Canada flight AC991 carried passengers from Toronto to Mexico City using a similar 50/50 mix. It was the first of two commercial test flights Air Canada conducted that year.

“We took 43 per cent of the carbon out of that flight,” said Teresa Ehman, the airline’s director of environmental affairs. “It was phenomenal. But it raised the next question: Why does this not happen every day?”

Environmental groups want an answer. Airline flight and passenger volumes are expected to double over the next 15 years, and if the aviation sector doesn’t change its behaviour, that also means a doubling of greenhouse-gas emissions — from slightly less than 2 per cent today to a projected 4 or 5 per cent by 2050.

At the Paris climate conference in December, there was pressure from a variety of parties to have the aviation sector included in the final text of the resulting international agreement. It didn’t work. Airlines were once again left to their own devices. Initially included as part of the Kyoto Protocol, oversight of international aviation emissions got punted in the 1990s to the International Civil Aviation Organization, which has sat on the issue for two decades and continues to be the chosen overseer. A plan of action is expected to be hammered out this year, but critics warn not to expect anything mandatory or ambitious.

The entire situation frustrates the European Union, which has tried twice to impose a carbon fee on international flights into and out of Europe. It backed down from its most recent attempt in 2014 after U.S. and Chinese airlines threatened to ignore it, but the EU signalled it would revive the effort if ICAO didn’t have its own plan in place by 2017.

The bottom line: airlines need to step up their emissions-reduction game,  and biofuels are expected to play a major role.

Will biojet fuel take off?

In many ways, making biojet fuel is the easiest part of the mission to decarbonize aviation. Many companies are already producing it in limited quantities, using ingredients that range from canola and camelina to animal fats and algae.

The bigger challenge, said Ehman, is coming up with an efficient and economical way of safely getting fuel from a production facility all the way to an airplane’s wing. Biofuels are an important component, but without a supporting infrastructure and supply chain that allows it to be consumed on a large scale across all Canadian airports, the market for this fuel will never grow large enough to matter.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 5.03.32 PMTo tackle this barrier, Air Canada has teamed with experts from industry and academia on a project that will blend 400,000 litres of biojet fuel with an existing fuel-delivery system at a soon-to-be-chosen airport. The current approach — driving a truck directly to the airplane — creates a parallel system that is too expensive and impractical in commercial volumes.

“It’s not just knowing if these fuels can work in the planes, because that is known already,” said Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University, which is part of the initiative. “What we are trying to do is be among the first to put together a supply chain so we can see what it takes to start delivering these fuels into a hub in a way that allows them to be more widely used.”

Fred Ghatala, who as partner with Vancouver-based consultancy Waterfall Group is leading the research effort, said it comes down to lower costs in an industry where fuel purchasing and delivery represents a substantial part of an airline’s operational budget. “Reducing costs where possible when using low-carbon fuels is fundamental to the future of those fuels.”

The University of Toronto, McGill University and the International Air Transport Association are also part of the project as members of the BioFuelNet Aviation Task Force. Funding is coming from the Green Aviation Research and Development Network, which gets its support from the federal government and Canada’s aerospace sector.

Crucial to get it right

Ehman said Air Canada has been working to solve this carbon dilemma for nearly five years. After its biofuel test flights, the airline worked with Airbus and the BioFuelNet team to study Canada’s ability to supply biojet fuel, asking how much the country could produce and how much the fuel would cost. It then passed that research along to Transport Canada, which did its own Canadian feasibility study.

The industry has to get it right. For its part, Air Canada has done a good job of finding efficiencies in its operations, with measures to reduce aircraft weight, improve fleet maintenance and streamline routes. Out of 20 transatlantic airlines measured for operational efficiency, Canada’s biggest airline tied for fourth place behind only KLM, Aer Lingus, Airberlin and Norwegian Air, according to a November report from the International Council on Clean Transportation.

In Europe, airports themselves are committing to be carbon-neutral by 2030 through an increase in efficiency and use of solar power. But on-the-ground or in-the-air efficiency can only go so far, said Ehman, pointing out that fuel consumption represents more than 95 per cent of any airline’s emissions.

As a global industry, airlines have made a voluntary commitment to increase the fuel efficiency of their fleets by 1.5 per cent annually and achieve carbon-neutral growth beyond 2020. By 2050, the industry says it will cut its absolute GHG emissions in half compared to 2005 levels.

The only way to get there is with biofuels, and if that’s going to happen, Air Canada wants to make sure a vibrant market is developed domestically to keep jobs and money in the country. “There’s a paradigm shift happening,” said Ehman. “It’s important for Canada to take a lead in this.”

Mabee echoed that view. “This is the way the world is moving. We have to deal with emissions in every sector, somehow. So let’s figure this out.”

Canada’s advantage

Canada is in an ideal position to lead development of aviation biofuels.

For one, it has all the resources it needs to sustainably produce vast quantities of biofuel, whether from agricultural and forest residues or specially grown oilseed crops such as canola or camelina. Second, the country has the domestic expertise to refine those materials into a certifiable product that the industry can trust.

Homegrown companies such as Hamilton-based Biox and Enerkem of Montreal could be ideal producers of the fuel down the road. “They have the building blocks to start assembling those types of molecules,” said Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University. “But the key part of this, what is missing, is a policy driver for it. We don’t have a government mandate to make these fuels.”

A renewable fuel standard, like the federal requirement that gasoline contain at least 5 per cent ethanol, is one policy option. Another is a B.C.-style low-carbon fuel standard, which requires a 10 per cent reduction in the carbon intensity of gasoline by 2020. Putting the aviation sector under the umbrella of a carbon tax might also be considered.

But it makes no sense to knock on the government’s door if a barrier such as fuel distribution makes it overly difficult for the industry to comply. And while some might ask why batteries or hydrogen or solar technology isn’t being considered as an alternative, Mabee offers a reality check. “Solar planes and battery-powered planes are nice research efforts, but practically biofuels are the only way to go.”

This article was part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to and following the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Tides Canada supported the partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star had full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.

Airline griping over EU aviation carbon tax isn’t about the consumer

Here’s my take on the EU aviation carbon tax that is causing a stink with major world airline carriers:

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Tyler Hamilton

My family flew to North Carolina during the holiday to visit relatives and, being aware of new baggage fees, we made every effort to pack lightly.

Of two adults and two children we had only one item to check in. Not bad. But it still meant paying $25 to get the bag to Charlotte and another $25 to get it back home. Had we each checked just one bag for our one-week trip, it would have cost the family $200.

I point this out because I’m perplexed by Air Canada’s strong opposition to the European Union’s new aviation carbon tax, which went into effect Jan. 1.

The airline — as well as other members of the National Airlines Council of Canada — has no problem arbitrarily adding $50 to the price of a 2,500-kilometre round trip to the United States.

But it won’t tolerate the European Union slapping on a carbon tax that would only add $1.45 to a $500 round-trip ticket between Toronto and Frankfurt, Germany, a journey that covers five times the distance.

How did I come to $1.45? Anyone can calculate the impact on any trip to Europe. Just go to the website of the International Civil Aviation Organization at and click on the carbon calculator link at the bottom-left of the screen. Or click here.

A round trip between Toronto and Frankfurt generates 922 kilograms of carbon emissions per person. Per tonne, the price of carbon emissions on the European market is about $10.50, so the price for 922 kilograms would be $9.68.

But that’s not what airlines would initially have to pay per passenger. Under the new European aviation tax scheme, airlines still get a free pass for 85 per cent of their emissions. With the tax only applying to the remaining 15 per cent, that works out to $1.45 that will surely be passed along to consumers.

As industry observer Bill Hemmings said, “Commercially it’s a non-event.” Airlines arbitrarily change online flight prices on a minute-by-minute basis by much larger amounts.

Yet Air Canada and its fellow airlines in Canada, the United States, China, India, Russia and Japan insist on demonizing the fee and amplifying talk of trade wars and unproven claims of job destruction. It doesn’t matter that the European Union Court of Justice ruled recently that the new tax does not contravene international law.

“This ruling by no means settles this matter,” George Petsikas, president of Canada’s airline council, said defiantly after the European court ruling.

Those opposed to the EU’s actions argue that the matter of emissions reductions in the global aviation industry is best addressed through a “coherent, multilateral framework” via the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

The solution, they feel, is to create yet another international initiative that likely will lead to more delay and inaction on pressing climate matters.

Been there, done that. What’s admirable about the EU approach is that it’s about more action and less talk. Understandably, it’s tired of waiting for the rest of the world to get its act together.

The aviation sector accounts for 3 per cent of global emissions, but both its share of global emissions and its absolute contribution are expected to grow under a do-nothing scenario that isn’t sustainable.

To be fair, the industry hasn’t been idle. Fuel efficiency has improved by 16 per cent between 2001 and 2008, according to the International Air Transport Association. Since 1990, major Canadian airlines have improved fuel efficiency by 31 per cent.

But it’s not enough, and there’s a whole lot more that can be done. A sector-specific carbon tax that grows gradually and includes more countries over time will accelerate innovation and give the most fuel-efficient airlines an edge over competitors.

As airline fleets are renewed there will be greater incentive to embrace more efficient engine technology and light-weight materials, such as carbon fibre, in the design of new aircraft.

The air transport association estimates the industry will spend $1.5 trillion on new aircraft by 2020, resulting in more than a quarter of the global fleet being replaced. It’s important to make sure new aircraft are built and purchased with fuel-efficiency top of mind.

Airlines will also be more motivated to use renewable jet fuel products in old and new aircraft to offset their carbon footprints. There’s tremendous promise with respect to carbon-neutral jet fuels derived from algae, wood waste, inedible plants such as camelina, and even industrial waste gases.

One advantage is that aviation is a relatively easy market to target. There are fewer than 2,000 airports around the world that serve as major fuelling hubs for airplanes, so the required infrastructure changes to accommodate renewable jet fuel are quite manageable. Contrast this with the hundreds of thousands of fuelling stations that service cars worldwide.

Jet fuel also represents less than 8 per cent of global demand for oil products, so it’s not as daunting as tackling the market for consumer vehicles, which consume more than 40 per cent of oil supply.

The industry says it is already going down this innovation path. That only makes the EU carbon tax even more benign. The EU, meanwhile, has said that any airline headquartered in a country with similar emission-reduction policies would be exempt from the EU tax.

So what, exactly, is the fuss all about? It’s about the rest of the world not liking Europe taking the lead and telling it what to do, and even though it’s clear that we need to do it.

It certainly isn’t about the financial interests of travellers, who have been and will continue to be penalized much more by arbitrary fees designed to pad the bottom line.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. tyler@cleanbreak.ca