SUMANI Trendster: A Push for a Sustainable Aviation Industry

President of Alternative Aviation Fuels, LLC and SUMA Student, Michel Delafontaine, writes about the latest international movement on sustainability in a growing market: commercial aviation.

In 2008, the European Commission initiated an emission trading system (EU ETS) for the 28 EU members plus Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway[1].

The initiative would impose the ETS to all flights originating in or landing in the European Economic Area, legislation that applied to EU and non-EU airlines alike. This regulation was rejected by non-EU members and the EU had to suspend the ETS in 2012 to allow for the international community to negotiate a new agreement.

After years of international haggling, the new agreement was recently passed.

On October 6th, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a United Nation agency, finalized such agreement to mitigate the emissions generated by the aviation industry[2]. Out of the 190 Countries making up the ICAO membership, 65 governments and the hosted airlines representing more than 86% of the industry activity agreed on a Global Market Based Measure (GMBM) to control CO2 emissions, named the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). CORSIA is a basket of measures that include technical improvements and advances in the production and use of sustainable alternative fuels for aviation[3].

Aviation only represents 2% of the global CO2 emissions, but with a forecast of growth of 5% per year, the industry could see this number double by 2040. Technological progresses and operation improvements increased fuel efficiency drastically since the 1960s to about 80% of what it was before. Such improvement, however, has limitations and more drastic measures have to be taken to mitigate the CO2 emissions.

The only way to offset jet emissions is to take back the carbon dioxide the airlines have put in the air.

Initiatives like alternative jet fuel produced from biomass – which takes CO2 from the air – have paved the way for the recycling of carbon dioxide emitted by the airlines. The principal agents: the airlines, the engine and aircraft manufacturers, the government bodies regulating the industry, the conventional and the nascent renewable fuel industry all came together and made progress on all fronts. The Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI)[4] has mapped a strategy of producing drop-in sustainable jet fuels and was instrumental in having these fuels certified by the Federal Aviation Administration and ASTM. This enabled an emerging alternative aviation fuel industry to grow, even if the contribution of bio-based jet fuel quantities could just be drops in the bucket; the effort of CAAFI has created a major precedent. The major airlines are now involved in Offtake Agreements for drop-in jet fuel under the new standard – ASTM D7566: “Standard Specification for Aviation Turbine Fuel Containing Synthesized Hydrocarbons”[5].

The emergence of a sustainable alternative aviation fuel industry depends on a continuous focus on the factors that enable it. The current technologies, based on biomass feedstock (e.g. hydro-treated fatty acid, recycled or extracted from grown biomass) are niche avenues in the production of the complex hydrocarbons making up the composition of jet fuel. They will not, however, be able to supply the whole demand of the product, lest its growth. It belies in Nature’s efficiency in converting solar energy into biomass energy: it is less than 1%.

There are other solutions that would recycle CO2 into jet fuel.  Research on Atmospheric Air Capture (AAC) and its conversion into hydrocarbons could be more efficient than Nature – by a factor of ten, at least.  A Columbia University scientist, now Director of the Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at Arizona State University (ASU), Klaus Lackner, is actively working on AAC. The captured CO2 can be converted into hydrocarbons by technologies developed under the leadership of Ellen Stechel at Sandia National Laboratories and now also hosted at ASU and through LightSpeed Solutions[6].

A real push to recycle CO2 into jet fuel alternatives must involve a substantial R&D funding.  By collecting a small “tax” on a per mile basis under the GMBM could be a way of funding this effort. The airlines are just agents of these emissions; the air travelers are the ones who should bear the responsibility of taking back what was emitted during the flight taken: it thus does make sense that the airlines should charge them for the emissions they are responsible for.

-Michel Delafontaine, M.S. Candidate
SUMANI Trendster Contributor, 10/19/2016

*Trendster is a voluntary, crowd-sourced initiative facilitated by SUMA Net Impact. It does not represent the collective views of Columbia University, the Earth Institute or Net Impact

[1] Reducing emissions from aviation, European Commission web site, retrieved October 8th, 2016,
[2] Henry Fountain, New York Times, October 6th, 2016,
[3]Historic agreement reached to mitigate international aviation emissions, ICAO Web Site, Retrieved October 8th, 2016,
[4]CAAFI web site, retrieved October 8th, 2016,
[5] ASTM D4054 Users’ Guide, CAAFI Publication, Retrieved October 8th, 2016,
[6] LightSpeed Solutions, web site, retrieved October 8th, 2016,



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