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Booming Asian aviation demands clean fuels

Asia is growing rapidly, the southeast part fastest of all. As people rise in income, they will fly more often, just as we have in the West. This is inevitable. By joining together the range of stakeholders and concerns, SEASAFI could provide a groundwork for growth of sustainable flight in this booming region.

Booming Asian aviation demands clean fuels

Patrick Mazza, Research Director

By Patrick Mazza
Climate Solutions

Bangkok’s skyscraper-studded skyline visibly expresses Southeast Asia’s bursting energy.  Towers spread across  a sprawling horizon, linked by light rail on tracks elevated above the city’s notorious traffic.  The region is heading for the sky, quite literally.

Bangkok Skyline

Bangkok skyline via Swami Stream on Flickr

In the next 20 years, regional airlines will spend $470 billion to add nearly 3,000 planes to their fleets, Boeing Southeast Asia President Ralph “Skip” Boyce predicts.  This aviation expansion reflects regional economic growth, which will average 7.1% annually for the next two decades—exceeding even China’s 6.5%, Boyce added.

Boyce was speaking at the Aviation Biofuel and Sustainable Agriculture in Southeast Asia workshop on Sept. 13, aimed at propelling regional aviation growth on clean fuels. I was also on stage talking about how inclusive stakeholder processes can resolve sustainability questions surrounding new fuels.

Increasing air travel demonstrates the tremendous success of a region rising out of poverty, but it comes with a huge challenge – rapidly increasing carbon emissions.  Aviation’s share of global carbon dioxide emissions is projected to rise from the current 2% to 3% over coming decades and the growth in developing regions such as Southeast Asia is a significant factor.

An added 1% share might seem small, Boyce said, but it is a “50% increase, larger than any other transport sector.”

Genuinely low-carbon biofuels are needed to halt that trajectory while ensuring aviation’s capacity to grow. The sponsor list showed the high priority the industry and regional authorities place on the issue.  Boeing and Airbus, normally fierce rivals, joined with the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  The 90 or so participants included regional airlines, government, biofuels feedstock producers, and researchers. 

Many of the airlines at the workshop are members of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), 26 carriers worldwide representing 40% of global jet fuel use.  They have targeted carbon-neutral growth by 2020 and a 50% reduction from 2005 emissions by 2050. 

“No other industry is standing up and saying we want sustainable biofuels like the aviation industry,” Boyce said.

The meeting’s aim was to build the foundation for a Southeast Asia Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative (SEASAFI), an ASEAN-sponsored roadmapping for an aviation biofuel industry based on regional feedstocks.  I was over there to pass on insights from the roadmapping we did for the Pacific Northwest, Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest, and others that we have advised in Brazil and Mexico.  I talked about how those processes addressed sustainability concerns by drawing together a range of stakeholders from feedstock and fuel producers, to airlines and airports, to environmental and social advocates. 

Such a process is particularly crucial for Southeast Asia, center for production of by far the most controversial biofuels feedstock, palm oil.  Expansion of palm plantations, mostly for food but some for fuel, is connected to loss of species such as orangutans.  Expansion is also tied to clearing of rainforests, releasing carbon emissions that for at least decades cancel out carbon reductions from replacing petroleum. 

Palm oil is “the elephant in the room,” noted Michael Lakeman, who manages Boeing’s sustainable fuel initiatives in the region.  Answering whether and how palm can be sustainable is a critical question for any roadmapping.  Clearly, a cessation of palm plantation expansion into natural ecosystems is needed.  Furthermore, a SAFUG commitment to not compete with food crops could bar aviation palm oil use entirely.  (The European Union parliament last week voted to limit food-based biofuels to 6% of overall transport fuel supplies.)

The ASEAN nations with their rich tropical agriculture have many other feedstock options, including non-food oil bearing crops such as jatropha, and woody biomass residues.  The region could produce large amounts of fuel, but environmental and social sustainability must be validated.

Asia is growing rapidly, the southeast part fastest of all. As people rise in income, they will fly more often, just as we have in the West.  This is inevitable.  By joining together the range of stakeholders and concerns, SEASAFI could provide a groundwork for growth of sustainable flight in this booming region.

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