Airlines are unlikely to meet even their own delayed targets for reducing the sector’s carbon emissions, even though science can deliver a perfectly good jet fuel from algae and a variety of other organic non-fossil feedstocks, an analysis by Biofuels Digest concludes.
Last October, the global aviation industry released an emissions containment plan that relied mainly on a combination of carbon offsets and anticipated improvements in aircraft efficiency to reduce emissions. The system is voluntary until 2026, and falls far short of the industry’s long-held promise to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020.
“Absent an aggressive introduction of renewable fuels, airlines will miss their carbon targets, and badly,” Biofuels Digest concludes, citing researchers at Utrecht University. Several airlines have flown selected flights on biofuel, but it contributes only a tiny fraction of aviation fuel consumed by commercial carriers—about 0.12% of the 83 billion gallons that airlines burn every year.
To make a meaningful contribution to what the Utrecht analysis describes as a widening “gap” between the industry’s carbon-neutral commitment and what it can achieve through efficiency and offsets—especially as the latter become scarcer after 2030—the industry will face some significant costs.
Biofuel, the researchers calculate, currently costs €762 per ton more than fossil jet fuel. As a means of mitigating emissions, it costs €242 per ton of avoided CO2, a large multiple of recent carbon offset prices in Europe’s mitigation market. On that basis, they conclude, “a level playing field will likely be inadequate to stimulate RJF [Renewable Jet Fuel] uptake. Supplementary measures, such as guaranteed feed-in tariffs, are necessary.”
The researchers suggest “a modest surcharge” of € 0.90 to €4.10 per airline ticket, collected into and distributed through a €10-billion “renewable jet fuel deployment fund,” to achieve 5% market penetration for biofuel by 2030. If airlines adopted biofuels instead of relying on offsets to achieve their carbon neutrality targets, renewables fuel could deliver as much as 20% of supply by then.
Based on anticipated air travel in, to, and from Europe over the next decade, that total “comes down to an extra cost of €0.0007 per passenger-kilometre. It’s not even a rounding error. You’d have to fly 1,400 kilometers to rack up an extra Euro in cost.”
The United States is sending delegates to mid-year climate change negotiations in Bonn in May, despite the new administration’s fulminations about withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. After seeing Donald Trump appoint a climate denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency and a former ExxonMobil CEO as secretary of state, “UN officials told reporters in London on Thursday they were not sure how to interpret the move,” the Financial Times reports [subs req’d].
“We got an email saying there is a U.S. delegation coming in May,” said Nick Nuttall, communications coordinator at the UN climate secretariat. “It looked like it was a pretty standard delegation that they would send.” UN Climate Secretary Patricia Espinosa said she would be in Washington this week to meet senior officials with the new administration, “to really share with them why this agenda is so important and why it is in their interest.”
The Wall Street Journal, citing multiple sources, says Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner successfully lobbied her father to leave language critical of the Paris Agreement out of an upcoming executive order. That didn’t stop a group of 300 high-profile climate deniers from urging the former casino boss to withdraw completely from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, EcoWatch reports. With or without any reference to the Paris deal, the Washington Post has Trump launching the process to roll back a suite of Obama-era climate, energy, and environment regulations, including the Clean Power Plan.
“Trump’s executive order won’t, by itself, repeal the Clean Power Plan, which is a massive Environmental Protection Agency regulation that aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants 32% below 2005 levels,” Vox notes. “Instead, Trump will ask his new EPA head, Scott Pruitt, to replace Obama’s rule with…something else.”
Trump reiterated his support for a renewable fuels standard, in a letter published during the National Ethanol Conference in San Diego. The letter meant “wading into the industry’s battle with independent oil refiners and billionaire Carl Icahn over whether parts of a federal mandate should be changed,” Think Bioenergy reports.
Meanwhile, an investigation by a Fox News affiliate in Oklahoma (yes, we read that twice, too) revealed that EPA chief Scott Pruitt “used a private email account to conduct official business while he was the state’s attorney general, directly contradicting what he told the Senate during his confirmation hearing,” ThinkProgress reports.
“It’s not illegal for the Oklahoma attorney general to use private email accounts for government business, but those emails must be included in any records requests,” writes Economics Editor Bryce Covert. Moreover, “lying to the Senate under oath about the emails amounts to perjury. And it is illegal to use private email for official federal government business.”
While the Capitol Hill coverage raised the mind-bending possibility of a parallel between Scott Pruitt and Hillary Clinton (couldn’t…not…point it out), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission was instructing natural gas pipeline developers to disclose their potential climate impacts, the National Academy of Sciences was urging the new U.S. administration to maintain and expand federal climate research, the researchers behind that work were deeply worried about harassment and “McCarthyist attacks”, and the CBC was trying to decipher Donald Trump’s semi-coherent comments about the Keystone XL pipeline during his appearance at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference. The stream of consciousness included a hypothetical conversation between an executive who might have been TransCanada CEO Russ Girling, and his wife.
“He gave up. A year ago, it was dead. Now he’s doing nothing, calling his wife, ‘Hello darling, I’m a little bored, you know that pipeline has killed us, has killed our company,'” Trump said. “Knock, knock, Mr. So and So, the Keystone pipeline sir, has just been approved.”
Converting wood pellets to electricity produces higher greenhouse gas emissions than coal, and related European subsidies for biomass fuel are in immediate need of review, according to a new study for Chatham House.
The biomass industry “rejected the report, saying that wood energy cuts carbon significantly compared to fossil fuels,” according to BBC.
The debate is important, because wood pellets supply about 65% of Europe’s green energy. “EU governments, under pressure to meet tough carbon-cutting targets, have been encouraging electricity producers to use more of this form of energy by providing substantial subsidies for biomass burning,” explains BBC environmental correspondent Matt McGrath. But “current regulations do not count the emissions from the burning of wood at all, assuming that they are balanced by the planting of new trees,” he adds, citing the Chatham House assessment.
“The fact that forests have grown over the previous 20 or 100 years means they are storing large amounts of carbon,” said report author Duncan Brack, a former special advisor at the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change. “You can’t pretend it doesn’t make an impact on the atmosphere if you cut them down and burn them.”
The assumption that bioenergy is carbon-neutral “misses out on some crucial issues, including the fact that young trees planted as replacements absorb and store less carbon than the ones that have been burned,” BBC adds, citing Brack. “Another major problem is that under UN climate rules, emissions from trees are only counted when they are harvested.”
Since Canada, the U.S., and Russia use a different method to account for carbon in the wood pellets they export to Europe, and the EU skips emissions from burning, “the carbon simply goes ‘missing,’” McGrath notes. The UK imported 7.5 million tonnes of pellets from Canada and the U.S. in 2015-16.
“This report confirms once again that cutting down trees and burning them as wood pellets in power plants is a disaster for climate policy, not a solution,” said David Carr, General Counsel of the U.S. Southern Environmental Law Center. “The process takes the carbon stored in the forest and puts it directly into the atmosphere via the smokestack at a time when carbon pollution reductions are sorely needed.”
“They are shooting themselves in the foot,” agreed Linde Zuidema of Fern, an environmental group based in Brussels. “They are not taking into account that increased harvesting of trees will actually have an impact on the role that forests play as a carbon sink.”
Dr. Nina Skorupska, CEO of the UK Renewable Energy Association, said the bioenergy supply chain cuts emissions 60 to 80% compared to fossil fuels. “That principle is at the heart of the industry,” she told BBC. “Biomass cuts carbon, supports forests, and delivers reliable renewable energy at a lower cost.”
Brack also took issue with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s growing emphasis on bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). “It’s really worrying,” he said. “The number of scenarios that the IPCC reviewed that rely on BECCS for ambitious climate change targets, it’s crazy.”
In 2014, The Tyee ran a feature series on biomass that raised similar concerns about its climate and other environmental impacts. While one state-of-the-art demonstration plant at the University of British Columbia was running very cleanly, “that achievement is likely exceptional,” wrote Robert McClure, executive director of the non-profit InvestigateWest.
“In the United States, a Wall Street Journal review of 107 biomass-fueled power plants found that 79% had been cited in the previous five years for violating air or water pollution standards,” he wrote. “Prompted by health concerns, the American Lung Association, Massachusetts Medical Society, and Florida Medical Association have all come out against large-scale wood-burning to produce energy.”
Wind, solar, and bioenergy production under Ontario’s Green Energy Act only accounts for about one-eighth of the electricity prices that have been hitting ratepayers’ pocketbooks and roiling the province’s politics ahead of an election scheduled for next year, according to analysis released last week by Toronto-based Environmental Defence.
In fact, a close look at ED’s numbers shows that, at a cost of $20 per household per month, renewables consume 12% of the power generation costs built into the average Ontario power bill and deliver 13% of the electricity, according to the supply mix reported by the province’s Independent Electricity System Operator. Nuclear represents the largest share of the cost, at 24%, followed by natural gas at 8%, hydro at 7%, wind at 6%, solar at 5%, conservation at 3%, and biogas at 1%.
(Delivery costs account for 31% of the bill, and the full list of admin costs comes in at 48%—but those system-wide expenses would apply to any and all forms of electricity.)
“Renewable energy is being unfairly and inaccurately scapegoated,” writes Environmental Defence Programs Director Keith Brooks. “Yes, wind and solar power installations have grown significantly over the past decade and, today, Ontario has more installed solar generation than anywhere in North America save for California and Arizona. The province is a leader in wind power, too. Yet, these sources of power are currently only responsible for a small fraction of what we pay for electricity.”
Ontario’s electricity costs are in line with other provinces and “very low by European standards”, he adds. And ED weighs the $460-million annual premium Ontario pays for renewable energy, according to the provincial auditor-general, against $4.4 billion per year in avoided health and environmental costs resulting from the province’s coal phase-out.
That move “reduced GHG emissions by approximately 34 megatonnes, the equivalent of taking seven million cars off the road,” according to an Environmental Defence backgrounder. “The coal phase-out also caused a dramatic reduction of nitrous oxides, sulphur dioxide, mercury. and particulate matter, all of which are serious air pollutants that have adverse effects on health and the environment.”
On the horizon, ED notes that Ontario Power Generation is angling for an 180% increase in its nuclear rate to cover the cost of rebuilding the Darlington generating station. “Spoiler: Prices for wind and solar are falling, while prices for nukes are projected to rise,” Brooks writes. “Renewables will win the future on cost alone.”