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A Bio-Fueled Future: When Ideas (Literally) Take Flight

By - Jun 9 2014

GOL final small

“Ready for taxing,” announced Mr. Sergio Quitos, pilot in command of the Boeing 737 preparing for takeoff from Rio de Janeiro’s Santos Dumont Airport. Passengers fastened their seatbelts. My colleague Jose Ramon Gomez and I followed suit, keenly aware that we were not only experiencing innovation, but sitting in it, as that day, innovation came in the form of Latin America and the Caribbean’s (LAC) first bio-fueled passenger plane. After nearly four years we, the passengers aboard the first of 200 local bio-fueled flights to take place during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, were ready for takeoff. An idea hatched by the IDB and Brazilian airline GOL in late 2010, had finally taken flight.

A few days prior, my flight from Washington, DC to Rio de Janeiro was calculated to emit 1.3 tons of CO2. Carbon Footprint, a private organization, provides a mechanism to offset these emissions. For the modest price of US$17, the organization plants trees to compensate the oxygen consumed by each flight’s burning kerosene. Interestingly enough, the emissions evenly distributed to the atmosphere at 35,000 feet are much more “effective” than on the ground, as they immediately form part of a layer of invisible darkness…I gave it a try and paid for planting the tree. It felt good!

But is there more to be done about CO2 emissions than planting reconciliatory trees? Yes! Though air traffic is expanding rapidly (at higher rates, even, than cars), many leading airlines have been inspired by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to maintain aviation emissions at 2012 levels. GOL, a young and dynamic Brazilian airline, is a prominent leader in these efforts that decided to take this commitment a step further. On June 4th, a week before the 2014 FIFA World Cup began, I was able to join them that for important first biojet fueled commercial flight, which kicked off what we hope will become a long tradition of sustainable aviation. This is a clear statement to the soccer world: we are ready for sustainable sporting events. Will you help us get there?

Though this progress is exciting, I recognize that there is still a long “flight” ahead before every airline can use biojet fuel for their commercial flights. The certification of kerosene from non-fossil based feedstock is a long, complicated, and costly process. Developing feedstock to a size sufficient size for supplying the aviation community is a similarly complex challenge. With more than 25 years of experience in the provision of bio-fuel for cars (alcohol), Brazil has a competitive advantage that allows it to take leadership in that sphere. However, as with new products or technologies in any market, it is difficult to develop a market for biojet fuel.

The main challenges to a wide deployment of biojet fuels are not technical, but commercial and political. Because biojet fuels are more expensive than Jet A/A1, investment in production infrastructure is perceived as risky. This applies especially to countries where carbon fuels are subsidized. It is therefore crucial to the emergence of sustainable aviation that carefully designed policy foster investment in and development of biojet production capacity. Additionally, organizations like the IDB must partner with the private sector, policy makers and regulators to make the seemingly impossible possible.

Around the world, multi-stakeholder groups (airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturers, governments, biomass and biofuel producers and suppliers) are working together for the deployment of biojet fuels. Some examples include CAAFI in the US, Aireg in Germany, Bioqueroseno in Spain, Plan de Vuelo in Mexico, AISAF in Australia, and other projects in China, New Zealand, Qatar, Scandinavia, Romania, and more. In Brazil, ABRABA, an association of highly motivated aviation companies and institutions are working together to stabilize climate vulnerabilities by developing a jet fuel supply chain. With continued efforts like this, the era of widespread sustainable aviation may come sooner than we think.

The IDB has been partnering with the Brazilian aviation community for several years, supporting a biojet fuel action plan, and pressing to use the World Cup as evidence that sports entertainment can be sustainable. Today, we inaugurated a schedule of local sustainable flights that will transport soccer fans to their games while reducing CO2 emissions at the same time. The Brazilian aviation community has a vision of a sustainable future. The IDB has joined in. Will you come aboard?

And for the skeptics: the flight was a success, and the plane set down as soft as ever!

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