07/10/2012 05:52 EDT | Updated 09/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Air Canada Flies on Cooking Oil


Today I had an odd juxtaposition of two pieces of information come across my desk. The first was from NOAA, the official weather agency in the United States reporting this was the warmest January-July on record in the contiguous United States since record keeping started in 1895. In June alone, over 170 temperature records were set across the United States. In fact, it has been warmer worldwide every year since the first Rio summit in 1992 held to tackle climate change. Despite the skeptics and naysayers, the computers and common sense consistently tell us the climate is changing.

The second piece of information was an email I received from Air Canada announcing the "greenest flight" in the history of the airline. The flight operated between Toronto and Mexico City on June 18 when an Airbus 319 filled with passengers flew with a 50/50 mixture of normal jet fuel and bio-fuel made from recycled cooking oil. Yes, cooking oil!

It was part of a demonstration project conducted by Airbus in conjunction with the Rio Summit. The flight churned out about 40 per cent less emissions than a typical flight. The airline claims the flight had the lowest carbon footprint of any flight in the company's 75 year history. It also included a quote from the CEO of Airbus saying that "now we need the political will to create incentives to scale up the use of bio-fuels."

While this news was obviously a savvy marketing move for Air Canada, it also said a great deal about what must be done to achieve sustainability in our lifetime. What we need is for individual consumers, businesses and government to all step up and do their part.

First, we as consumers need to really care about these kinds of innovations. At the end of the day, businesses exist to serve us. The flight shows that the technology already exists as is the case in many arenas. We already know how to make more efficient cars, to produce electricity through wind and solar power. Chris Turner's book The Geography of Hope shows that many of these sustainability innovations already exist. We have what we need. What we lack is the will. It is our job as customers to know about the companies we buy from and the impact of their practices. It is up to us to support innovation by making informed choices when we spend our money. Why don't we all write Air Canada and Westjet saying we want them to aggressively pursue reducing emissions? To give them incentive, tell them that the first one to do so will systemically get our business.

The second element is that we need businesses to step up and make sustainability an even bigger priority. I applaud Air Canada for being a part of this demonstration project. But what I really want to know is how hard they are working when the cameras aren't looking, to push for alternative fuels that can reduce carbon emissions from their fleet. Was this a one-time publicity stunt or part of a concerted effort to do their part to help us achieve sustainability? Will they keep me posted on their progress and tell me how I can help them make a bigger impact?

Innovations like this flight are happening in almost every industry where businesses are beginning to see the financial, moral and marketing value of being green. Business plays a unique role in the sustainability challenge because while the average person can make small choices that impact sustainability, companies can have a large impact. Imagine, for example, if one airline decided to run their entire fleet on cooking oil. Imagine flying with "French Fry Air!" And what if other businesses decided they would only let their people fly on airlines that ran on cooking oil? Maybe another would say "we won't use any suppliers who aren't using new technologies to fuel their fleets."

Of course, I'm being tongue-in-cheek but the point is that the decisions businesses make have an even greater reach than the average consumer. For example, when Walmart began asking its fish products suppliers to demonstrate that they were using sustainable measures, it reverberated throughout the supply chain.

Bob Willard, one of Canada's leading thinkers on sustainability, told me recently that influencing the supply chain was one of the most important frontiers for businesses in sustainability. The impact of a business reaches far beyond their own operations. I want to know what Air Canada is doing to "green" their supply chain to make sure their suppliers are aligned with that nice piece of communication they sent me.

The final element is the government. In the late 1970's U.S. President Jimmy Carter tried to issue rules requiring U.S. car manufacturers to achieve large gains in fuel efficiency. Not only would it have decreased dependency on the Middle East for oil, but it would have driven significant innovation. Imagine some thirty-five years later how much we might have decreased our emissions had he succeeded. Only the government can provide the kind of incentives needed for recycled cooking oil to become the fuel of tomorrow. We may want the private sector to do it all by itself but right now the average airline couldn't run on cooking oil even if they wanted to because the infrastructure isn't there.

A colleague of mine did some research asking companies what their greatest challenge was in getting greener. The number one challenge was not desire but finding products and infrastructure that could accomplish the same thing while using less resources. Businesses everywhere are looking for the equivalent of cooking oil and often can't find it.

To really tackle sustainability and turn the tide, we need all three cylinders firing. Consumers who will step up and make choices based on sustainability, companies that will step up and embrace innovation even when it is neutral to the bottom line, and government truly willing to lead.

So on this day when NOAA told us it is getting hotter by the year, hats off to Airbus and Air Canada for taking that cooking oil flight. One flight won't get us out of the hot water, but it's an image of what is possible if we all double up our efforts.