Cathay Pacific Airways has pledged an 80 per cent cut in the amount of climate-changing gases some of its longest flights pump into the Earth’s atmosphere, by betting big on biofuels.
The Hong Kong carrier will be one of the first airlines in the world to switch to cleaner jet fuels on an industrial scale.
The city is slowly strengthening its push to lessen its contribution to climate change, and the government aims to cut annual carbon emissions per person almost in half by 2030.
The aviation sector had avoided regulation until last year, when its governing body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, agreed a global deal to curb emissions growth by the end of the decade.
Cathay Pacific planes will use fuel made from landfill rubbish. Many of its flights from the United States, where the fuel is being produced, will be able to fly to Hong Kong using a half-half mix of biofuel and conventional fuel by 2019. It is on these trans-Pacific flights that the company expects the 80 per cent emissions reductions.
“Aviation biofuels will play a key role for Cathay and the aviation industry’s quest for lower emissions,” the airline’s biofuel manager, Jeff Ovens, said. “We are on the cusp of large-scale production of low-carbon jet fuel and are eager to use it.”
The high and notoriously unpredictable cost of fuel has forced the airline to control how much it uses. By – among other things – reducing aircraft weight, flying on more direct flight paths and only using one engine to taxi on runways, the company cut emissions and paved the way for the rethink of how it could further cut pollution.
“This is where biofuels come in,” Ovens said. “These fuels will have a lower carbon footprint than fossil fuels, and the pricing we have is competitive with traditional fuels.”
Aside from the carbon dioxide reduction, using the mixed fuel avoids emissions of other harmful gases, like methane, given off as rubbish – which will instead be used as fuel – naturally degrades in landfill.
Cathay Pacific passengers are unlikely to see a rise in fares, because the biofuel investments since 2014 have been absorbed into the company’s operating costs. But it is too early to tell whether the switch could lower ticket prices.
Christine Loh Kung-wai, undersecretary at the Environment Bureau – which spearheaded the government’s 2030 climate action report – said: “I think the world as a whole has come to embrace dealing with climate change, and you are seeing major industry sectors coming forward to say they need to do more.”
But she said the lack of global rules on the production, infrastructure and supply of biofuels made long-term policy making harder. “I think that is further down the road than we are able to make policies on,” she said.
Roy Tam Hoi-pong, CEO of Green Sense, an environmental pressure group, said the airline’s climate effort was a “good start”.
He said: “As one of Asia’s biggest airlines, they can do much more.”
Airlines occasionally test biofuels, mainly with used cooking oil, but not landfill waste.
United Airlines has started running some domestic flights on biofuels regularly, but even then in small quantities.
The airline’s new batch of Airbus A350 planes – themselves 25 per cent more fuel efficient than their forerunners – flew from France to Hong Kong for delivery using a small amount of biofuel.
The airline’s partnership with a US-based renewable fuel producer is on track to help make its flights from the US to Hong Kong International Airport, starting from 2019, greener.
Fulcrum Bioenergy and Cathay Pacific signed an agreement in 2014, helping the airline meet its biofuel supply targets, with a purchase of 375 million gallons of biofuel over 10 years.
That fuel would be enough to supply Cathay Pacific’s 76 weekly US flights to Hong Kong for six months.