Vancouver International Airport hopes canola, wood waste and even municipal wastewater could, in the not-too-distant future, power the flights taking off from its runways.
For the past two years, YVR has been working towards a made-in-B.C. supply of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in a bid to help tackle airline emissions.
“In a world of a lot of climate change dread, I feel like there’s a real sense of optimism in this world around the conversation we’re having around sustainable aviation fuel,” Marion Town, YVR’s director of climate and environment, told the Richmond News.
In 2019, the Vancouver Airport Authority launched BioPortYVR, in partnership with the Green Aviation Research and Development Network, SkyNRG and Waterfall Group, to develop a B.C.-made supply of SAF — which currently isn’t produced or widely available in Canada.
The commercial aviation industry accounts for about two to three per cent of carbon emissions worldwide, according to International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association of the world’s airlines. Meanwhile, it notes that demand for air passenger travel in 2050 could exceed 10 billion.
At this rate, the expected 2021 to 2050 carbon emissions on a “business as usual” trajectory is approximately 21.2 gigatons, however, IATA has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050.
To do that, the industry is banking on SAF, which is made from renewable feedstocks such as canola, vegetable or used cooking oils, organic municipal waste, wood waste or even algae.
But biofuel production has its critics.
Some have argued growing crops for fuel, for example, could lead to food insecurity and deforestation.
“Any time you reduce carbon is not a bad thing, but in the long term, especially because of the issue that you’re sort of turbocharging the biofuel market — would it be counterproductive?” said Paul Richard, with KPU’s environmental protection program, who said he would like to see money put towards other decarbonization strategies.
Richard pointed out that long-distance flights are much harder to decarbonize than other transportation sectors. Furthermore, the technology for long-haul electric-powered aircraft is still a ways off.
IATA also acknowledges that current annual production of SAF is 100 million litres — a long way off from the 449 billion litres it estimates will be needed by 2050 to meet emissions targets.
Regardless, many are optimistic.
“I feel pretty excited that the industry as a whole has said this is the solution to our decarbonization pathway,” said Town.
Further, as a “drop in” fuel, SAF can be used in existing airport fuelling systems, including tanks and pipelines, said Town.
SAF can reduce emissions by up to 80 per cent during its full lifecycle, according to IATA, noting the fuel also contains fewer impurities, which can help reduce sulphur dioxide and particulate matter emissions.
Depending on the feedstock, production methods and supply chain, that reduction can go even higher, said Town, which is why it’s important to grow a B.C. supply chain.
While SAF is more expensive than fossil-based aviation fuels, Town said policy changes could help lower the cost — making SAF something airlines can purchase while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In October, the province announced it is expanding the Low Carbon Fuel Standard – which requires fuel suppliers to progressively reduce the amount of carbon in fuels supplied to B.C. users – to include marine and aviation fuels, beginning in 2023.
“(That) is the signal we’ve been waiting for,” said Town.
“British Columbia has a really good available supply chain, but it will take time to enable all that to click. I feel like once we have the policy regime in place, then all of that starts to flow.”
According to the BioPortYVR feasibility study, B.C. has a good, available supply of feedstocks — particularly canola, which is grown in Western Canada.
There’s also a “huge opportunity” in B.C. with wood waste, said Town, as a lot of the “forest residue” left over when trees are logged isn’t used.
Technologies to convert woody biomass into fuel are still developing, however, according to the feasibility study.
Another potential feedstock is municipal waste, said Town, noting that Metro Vancouver is producing biocrude oil — which can be refined into low carbon fuel — from wastewater at its Annacis Island facility.
“I can see a future where every single one of the wastewater treatment plants, not only in Metro Vancouver, but also in all of the key centres in British Columbia, take that biocrude and get it into a production line for renewable fuels,” she said.
“It’s an amazing opportunity in the sustainable aviation fuel supply chain.”
Other feedstocks, such as used cooking oil and animal fats and greases are also options, according to the study, but these are already in demand in fuel markets outside of Canada.
YVR isn’t alone in its quest to increase the supply and use of SAF.
“It shows up in every single kind of pathway or plan that the industry is advancing,” said Town.
The airport joined the World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition – alongside more than 80 global industry leaders, announced at COP26 in Glasgow – which aims to accelerate the supply and use of SAF to reach 10 per cent of global jet aviation fuel supply by 2030.
That’s ahead of IATA’s target of around five per cent SAF by 2030.
In the U.S., San Francisco International Airport is also working to advance the use of SAF across California and North American airports. United Airlines, meanwhile, flew a plane full of passengers from Chicago to Washington on Dec. 1, 2020, with one engine fully powered by SAF (the other engine was fuelled by conventional jet fuel).
But the global market could pose a threat to food affordability and deforestation, if the aviation sector worldwide moves to biofuels, said Richard, with KPU’s environmental protection program.
While YVR by itself would have a “negligible impact” and there are “no deforestation issues from growing canola in the Canadian prairies,” he said an increased global demand for canola from biofuel makers could lead to plant oil being produced from other sources, such as palm oil from Indonesia or soybean oil from Brazil, both of which are linked to deforestation.
SAF sustainability criteria includes, for example, transparent, traceable supply chains and avoiding measures that would contribute to food insecurity or deforestation, according to BioPortYVR. IATA lays out similar criteria.
While Richard said this is “good news,” there’s still the question of how that would be enforced and whether the sustainability standard would have teeth.
“If your sustainable aviation fuel starts increasing the demand for plant-derived oils, then that has a sort of domino effect that is, to me, beyond the control of any specific national agency,” he said.
Rather than SAF, Richard said he would prefer to see the same amount of money go towards other measures, such as a carbon bank to target transportation sectors that are easier to decarbonize than long-distance planes, such as railways, road transportation or cargo ships.
For example, he said, the railway industry could use the money put into the carbon bank by the aviation sector to invest in electrification.
“That (carbon bank) to me is where a much bigger bang could be accomplished for the same amount of money.”
Another measure could be a carbon tax on flights, Richard said. If a cheap flight to Las Vegas was suddenly more costly, it could result in fewer flights and therefore, fewer emissions.
But initiatives such as a carbon bank would be a federal responsibility – and policy changes at that level are moving “very slowly” in that direction, Richard said.
Nonetheless, he said, collective action — and therefore, policy action — is what is needed to have “everyone steering in the right direction.”
“Everybody is trying a bit of this, a bit of that, all over the place, and we need a bit more direction in the form of policy. Not government saying, ‘oh, you have to do this and you have to do that,’ but government saying, ‘it’s going to be a bit more costly if you’re going to be burning something that emits carbon.’”