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Jan 31, 2017

Cathay Pacific sets higher goal for its biofuels ambitions

Cathay Pacific may have its problems, but it is way out in front in committing to reducing fossil carbon releasing emissions

By adding emission reductions from its new Airbus A350s to its long term investment in buying jet fuel made from landfill waste in California, Cathay Pacific now expects to cut fossil carbon emissions on some of its North Pacific long haul flights to Hong Kong by as much as 80 percent in 2019 compared to today’s operations.

This update, in the South China Morning Post, is one of the best insights into how airlines can tackle climate change responsibilities to have been published in recent times.

It’s a report that can also be taken further if seen in the context of the move toward aggressive reductions of fossil carbon release by airlines that want to go beyond support for small scale research projects to initiatives that will put substantial amounts of green fuel into their tanks within a few years.

Cathay Pacific, banking on green fuel

There are several things to keep in mind.  Current schemes for biofuel production don’t produce cheap fuel, but the cost will come down as the scale of production rises.

And in most countries, even the falling price of biofuel production needs to be further lowered to become useful for airlines by schemes that trade carbon credits and yield a balance sheet benefit.

Only that way, according to the biofuel and investment communities, can a virtuous circle be set up in which more volume means lowering the price gap between traditional fossil carbon releasing fuels and their various synthetic or biological replacements, with the balance sheet benefits of burning more green fuel encouraging more investment in more biofuel production.

A perverse consequence of rising use of lower costing biofuels than before is to also put downward pressure on the price of the crude oil traditionally used to make aviation grade kerosene.

There is very little analyst support for the view that biofuels will ever cost less than fossil carbon releasing fuels in a head to head contest this side of 2050 without the invoking of public policy changes mandating the use of green fuel quotas and their supporting with  company tax benefits.

But there is an environmental and political imperative in China, and Europe, that says the shutting down of fossil carbon releasing energy sources must be achieved as a matter of rising urgency.

Nothing will focus the public mind more closely on the perils of global warming than the destruction of ports and coastal settlements from rising sea levels, or the chaos that will attend the winners and  losers in food production as some agricultural land benefits from higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, while others are destroyed by heat and loss of irrigation.

Given all its other problems, Cathay Pacific’s investment in green fuel is recognition of the over arching threat to air travel of growth that otherwise comes without emissions reductions.

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3 comments

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3 thoughts on “Cathay Pacific sets higher goal for its biofuels ambitions

  1. Dan Dair

    It needs a ‘big-time’ commitment to ‘bite-the-bullet’ & go down this route, to make a real difference for our, our children & granchildrens’ futures.
    I’ve lots of respect for Cathay on this,
    but by themselves they’ll not make the difference.?

    The key is, as Ben makes clear, volumes.!
    The more airlines (& any other significant users of fossil fuels) make the commitment to use all or substantial proportions of bio-fuels, the more available & lower-priced those fuels will be.
    When the end market is there, producers know that they can sell their product, so they’ll be more inclined to invest in those production facilities.
    (Organic farming is the same.
    Right now organic produce is premium-priced. If all farmers were growing organically, there wouldn’t be a premium for organic, just a premium on quality.?)

    So often, the USA has led the way in technical breakthroughs or bringing other peoples breakthroughs into the marketplace.
    In these present, strange times, with another climate-change denier in the presidency, it is up to other nations (or the businesses in those nations) to take the lead on this
    and be the first to reap the benefits of it.
    As well as own the technology or the major businesses which will create these alternative fuels (or even just provide the necessary raw materials for them.!)?

  2. Roger Clifton

    Biofuel is good at collecting carbon, but almost useless at collecting solar energy. Greenery just does not have the calorific value of gasoline. However, if refineries used non-carbon electricity to upgrade the biomass to gasoline, aircraft could fly carbon-neutral. In fact if the refineries collected carbon direct from the air, we wouldn’t have to put pressure on the biosphere to indulge our wish to fly Non-Fossil Airlines.

    1. Dan Dair

      Roger Clifton,
      How much of what you’ve just talked about is actually or very close to a practical reality.?

      Biofuel doesn’t collect carbon. It turns the existing carbons in vegetable matter into hydrocarbons which are combustable.
      Because they’re vegetable-based as opposed to fossil-based, they are carbon-neutral in themselves, although as you rightly point-out, they use energy to actually drive the process.
      The use of green energy (such as solar electricity) to power biofuel manufacture could make biofuel completely carbon neutral at the factory-gate.

      Jet aircraft don’t actually use gasoline/petrol in their engines, they use what is essentially kerosene, which isn’t massively different from diesel fuel oil.
      This is actually a good thing for aviation, as kerosene is easier to produce than gasoline. Of course, aviation still requires the biofuel to meet or exceed Jet A1 standards.

      Is it actually possible and commercially viable to harvest carbon directly from the air.?
      I know there’s been a lot of talk in climate-change circles about the possibility of creating ‘scrubber’ or filter-arrays which could draw carbon out of the atmosphere & store it in replaceable filters, which could then go for long-term storage or recycling into carbon-based products, such as fuel.
      But as far as I’m aware, this is all in the realms of ‘we believe that the knowledge exists to create these things, but the devices don’t actually exist anywhere outside of a computer or laboratory model.’?

      Of course, I might well be out of touch with all that & if I am I’d be genuinely grateful for more information.