IATA Director-Aviation Environment Paul Steele said that if the global air transport industry is to achieve its stated goal of a 1.5% improvement in fuel efficiency/carbon dioxide emissions annually through 2020, "we have to find 728 million tonnes in CO2 savings by 2020."

Speaking at last week's IATA Global Media Day in Geneva, he asserted that the industry is "on the right path" from an environmental perspective and is much better positioned to achieve its goals following the recent UNFCCC COP16 climate talks in Cancun (ATW's Eco-Aviation Today, Dec. 15). Steele served as executive director of the Air Transport Action Group that represented commercial aviation at COP16.

"I think it's safe to say that the whole meeting in Cancun was much different than what we experienced in Copenhagen (ATW's Eco-Aviation Today, Jan. 15) last year," he said, commenting that the Cancun summit was helped by "low expectations" that contrasted with the  high hopes for a comprehensive international accord leading up to the prior year-meeting. "Compared to where we were in Copenhagen last year, there's really a quite clear understanding that ICAO is the forum for taking action on [aviation's role in] climate change," Steele explained. "We came back from Cancun feeling that our industry position, and the role of ICAO, is much more clearly recognized than it was before."

He said governments must understand that a key component of air transport achieving carbon-neutral growth from 2020 is the development of viable biofuels to power commercial flights. "Where are we going to get [biofuel] from?" Steele asked, adding that IATA is "calling on governments to play their part in terms of providing R&D funding and de-risking [biofuel] pilot programs." He said governments need to create "incentives" for the private sector to invest in biofuel development and production.

IATA is pushing for the global airline fleet to be using a fuel mix that is 5%-6% biofuel by 2020. That goal is "a tall order" but doable, Steele told reporters in Geneva. "Some studies have shown that by 2040, 2045, 100% of aviation's fuel needs could be met by biofuel. Now there's a lot of work to do in developing [the biofuel] industry" to make that happen.

Asked how quickly a mass-producing biofuel industry that could support airlines' energy needs can be established, he conceded, "I don't know if I have a straightforward answer…It will be very slowly…It all depends on the type of crop [being used to produce the fuel] and what the yield is on site. Algae in the future have a very great potential."

He said airlines "want to use biofuels," particularly since "they know there will be emissions penalties [imposed on the industry] very soon…So the sooner they have an option to fight the emissions penalties, the better."

Ultimately, aviation biofuel will be delivered by a "multi-source solution," both in terms of feedstock type and the companies producing it, he predicted. "We are supporting small companies all over the world in developing biofuels," Steele commented. "There's no one big oil company that's started" a significant biofuel program.

Photo: IATA Director-Aviation Environment Paul Steele.