The mainland played a crucial role in the airline industry's carbon reduction programme, Paul Steele, the director of aviation environment for the International Air Transport Association (Iata), said yesterday. Speaking in Hong Kong, Steele noted the mainland's interest in developing biofuel feedstock and adopting standards to curb airline emissions, just as it did in the vehicle industry. Airlines have emerged as the first industry to set carbon reduction targets. Carriers have agreed to curb emissions growth by 2020 and cut their carbon footprint in half by 2050. The industry is looking ahead to the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in December, when a new global target for carbon reduction is expected to replace the Kyoto agreement, due to expire in 2012. The commitment is endorsed by the 230 airline members of Iata, including mainland airlines such as China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines Corp and Air China. Experts say curbing their carbon footprint will be an ambitious objective for fast-growing mainland carriers, especially since air traffic is growing annually at more than 10 per cent in China, which will inevitably increase emissions. Steele, however, said he was confident that Beijing would help carriers meet the goal. 'I am aware that the mainland has some initiatives [such as] looking at 'drop-in' fuel like algae,' said Steele, referring to alternative fuels. 'It is a real opportunity for a country like China to develop its own energy crops, not just for its own consumption but for export also.' Algae, jatropha and camelina are classified as second-generation biofuel sources that do not compete with edible crops for water and land resources. Algae are considered the most promising biofuel feedstock, as their 'oil content' is the highest among the three. Moreover, they can be grown in all types of water, including sea water, wastewater ponds and lakes. This is especially promising for China, which has a critical water supply problem. 'Iata can co-operate in many ways with biofuel projects with the mainland government if it is of strong interest to them,' Steele said. Iata has acted as an adviser to several airlines, such as Japan Airlines, Continental Airlines and Air New Zealand, and worked with engine and airframe manufacturers in biofuel flight tests conducted last year. The tests proved that alternative fuels are technically viable. The group has set a target that 10 per cent of the industry's jet fuel will be replaced by alternative fuels by 2017. Sustainable biofuels could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent on a 'full carbon life-cycle basis', which includes the production of the fuel. 'The key challenge to a fast-growing country is to invest in the right technology and plan ahead,' said Steele. 'China has a strong track record in other industries ... There is no reason they won't do it in the airline industry.' Steele said Beijing had put in place stricter emissions standards for its car industry than had Europe or North America. He also hoped the Greener Skies Conference that begins today in Hong Kong would generate increased attention from Asian carriers on environmental issues.