Remember when “green” implied money, not environmentalism? I have a secret for you. It still does. Airline CEOs are handsomely compensated to juggle economic viability and ecological sustainability. In a Darwinian sense, the choices these CEOs make weigh the probability of eventual environmental catastrophe against the certainty of immediate socioeconomic chaos. The world’s markets depend upon transportation infrastructure, yet all the world’s living things depend upon breathable air. Militant environmentalists cite such platitudes as justification to draw Occam’s razor and pare the industrialized world back to its agrarian infancy. Thankfully, the truth resists simplicity.
Flying is a dirty business. That much is certain. Air travel is the most carbon intensive activity in which an individual can engage. If the entire aviation sector were a country, it would be among the top 10 carbon-polluting nations on the planet. Over the next 15-years, global air traffic is expected to double. As the climate crisis is not going away, the global aviation sector needs to chart a sustainable course, pronto. The short-term answer to which airlines are lethargically turning is biofuel, a Jet-A alternative made from organic vegetable and animal waste—essentially a hydrogenated vegetable oil product.
According to the companies that produce it, biofuel is a panacea which, if adopted universally, would see the aviation industry’s carbon footprint decrease by eighty-percent. Eighty-percent! What’s more, state of the art biofuels such as Neste’s MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel are wholly compatible with extant, turbine engine technology. Neste calls it’s fuel a drop-in solution. Just drop the stuff into your aircraft’s fuel tanks and off you go! Regrettably, the reality of biofuel is far more complex. At present, biofuels must be mixed with petroleum jet fuel. The maximum allowable “cut” is fifty-percent. Ergo, Neste’s drop-in solution, regardless the company’s optimistic tenor, is a drop into a “half-empty glass.” Still, in an ecological sense, it’s a step in the right direction.
Or is it? Neste has been criticized for using palm oil and palm fatty acid distillate as a part of its feedstock for renewable products. Palm oil comes from commercial palm plantations. Most of the precious, ancient rainforest that’s been destroyed in Southeast Asia has been destroyed to clear acreage for palm plantations. A great many euphemisms have been crafted to obfuscate this unattractive truth, the most entertaining of which is a 2018 report in which the environmental watchdog group Biofuelwatch attested that Neste had met EU sustainability standards by sourcing palm oil from “older plantations”—ones for which rainforest was destroyed before 2008. Apparently the EU subscribes to the notion that rainforests destroyed prior to 2008 occasion less environmental consequence than those destroyed subsequently. Biofuelwatch goes on to state that it cannot guarantee that all of Neste’s crude palm oil is free of effects from more recent or ongoing deforestation. Greenpeace voiced similar concerns about Neste’s palm oil usage after an investigation revealed that Neste’s palm oil supply chain includes those Indonesian palm mills engendering the most egregious orangutan habitat loss.
Orangutans are smart creatures, however, and in a world skewing recklessly left, are likely to end up thriving on government-sponsored housing, healthcare, and food subsidies. What will kill off orangutans—and rainforests, and airline CEOs, and you, me, and everybody else—is water shortage. For all the noise being made about biofuel, dangerously little has been said about the vulgar volumes of water required to produce it. Neither Neste’s self-aggrandizements nor Greenpeace’s excoriations call attention to the horrifying fact that it takes 1,300 gallons of fresh water to produce one gallon of biofuel. Permit me to repeat that. It takes one-thousand-three-hundred gallons of fresh water to make one gallon of biofuel. Makes you thirsty, doesn’t it?
But let’s look beyond drought, massive deforestation, and orangutan genocide. Let us instead concentrate on those awful airline CEOs whose fanatical dedication to financial viability threatens to destroy the Earth’s atmosphere and make a greenhouse hell of this beautiful, blue world. What can be done to rouse that cadre of evil oligarchs from their avaricious delirium? What can the common man do to pry capitalism’s murderous grip from Mother Earth’s throat? Turns out, there is something we can all do. We can ante up. Dramatically.
How dramatically? Let’s do some math.
Regarding the cost of MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel, a Neste representative concedes, “Our sustainable aviation fuel, in general, is somewhere in the region of three to four times more expensive than fossil jet fuel.”
As fuel costs account for 10% to 12% of airline ticket prices, a quick calculation reveals that a fourfold increase in fuel cost would see a $210 ticket (at the prevailing jet fuel cost of $1.80\gal) increase in price to a cool $838. Factoring in the prerequisite 50:50 biofuel to petroleum jet fuel ratio, we reduce that figure to $419—but the objective is to convert entirely to biofuel, so back we go to $838.
Presto! we’ve cut aviation carbon emissions by eighty-percent. Furthermore, by pricing commercial aviation beyond the means of the lower and middle classes, we’ve dramatically cut the overall number of air-travelers! This is fortuitous insomuch as all of those former fliers will need that money to afford food, household items, electronics, and every other commercial good destined to skyrocket in price when the cost of air-freight increases to account for biofuel.
Turns out capitalism is a lot easier to denigrate when it’s someone else’s wealth one seeks to eradicate. Maybe those airline CEOs aren’t all bad. Hell, maybe they’re scrambling to find innovative means by which to contemporaneously accommodate increasingly restrictive environmental legislation and a flying public accustomed to $48, one-way fares.
Biofuel is the best short-term answer to the aviation industry’s sustainability conundrum. The means to produce it are proven and its compatibility with existing engine technology is undisputed. Whether or not biofuel can be rendered economically feasible is largely a question of choice. The more biofuel the airlines demand, the more energy companies will invest in producing it. At present, despite a great deal of lip-service and PR posturing, demand is tepid. Limited demand adversely impacts investment to drive the creation of economies of scale to reduce per-unit cost of production. It’s a vicious cycle. So long as petroleum jet-fuel remains cheap and plentiful, biofuel will amount to little more than an ornate hook on which to hang good intentions, and a reagent in the tiresome alchemy of virtue signaling.