01/03/2012 03:57 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2012

Sustainability Is in the Air

I just returned from a trip to Brazil. At Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro, while waiting for the plane to start taxiing for take off, I glanced at the next plane over and was surprised to read on the engine that it was powered by biofuel.

I looked at the airline (TAM) magazine, and there was an article about the airline's dedication to sustainability and its pioneering program to use biofuel on its planes. I was even more surprised to learn that the feedstock for the biofuel was the much maligned Jatropha curcas, an oilseed plant that was once the focus of research by BP but that had been abandoned in 2009 due to, among other factors, marginal and inconsistent yields. Concerns about toxicity had also been an issue -- although one could reasonably argue that the extraction of fossil fuels is hardly a clean process itself. Interestingly, while BP gave up on the feedstock, other companies and organizations such as TAM and Airbus, and Project Jatropha are still interested in researching it -- considering it a viable source of alternative fuel. And when BP decided to sell its share in the Jatropha venture, there was someone at the ready to buy it -- so there would appear to be viability in the process.

Jatropha oil has strong advocates, and demonstration flights have been conducted by airlines such as Air New Zealand and Continental, among others. According to news sources, the reason why BP gave up on its research was the lack of consistency in yield and other factors that would make Jatropha oil not commercially viable. Of course, this is the point of view from a company who wants to make money off a new technology -- indeed, big oil continues to research alternative fuels such as algae oil. However, the importance of the use of Jatropha oil in a mix, or as the sole local, inexpensive fuel in countries such as India cannot be dismissed. In many cases, a fuel produced with inconsistent yield is better than none.

I couldn't help but muse at the fact that in Brazil, an oil-independent country, there would be a company such as TAM actively investing in alternative and sustainable fuels other than the well-known and successful ethanol. Its website mentions an Airbus employee talking about the global responsibility of finding commercially viable and sustainable solutions for different situations in different parts of the world. Neither of these companies 'needed' to develop or research new fuels, but they do so because they are part of a larger conscience, where one's immediate profits may not solely dictate one's behavior or priorities. The Project Jatropha website also mentions the global aspect of climate change and how all are affected, and therefore all can benefit from local solutions. The idea of a common good and a better place for all resonates strongly in these initiatives, and makes for a good reason to act for a global cause. And with the Rio+20 conference coming up, it is a good idea to bring sustainability back to the front of our minds.

The views expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of Defenders of Wildlife.