Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Aviation Biofuels – Better in Theory Than in Practice?

The use of biofuels in the Aviation industry seems to be a hot topic right now. So why use biofuels in commercial aircraft? And is there an assumption that using biofuels will have less of a detrimental environmental impact than conventional fuels?

The Aviation industry accounts for almost three percent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activity. In light of this there is an ever present need to reduce emissions, particularly reducing fossil fuel use. With Aviation’s output of greenhouse gas emissions set to grow due to airport expansion and travel service increases, it is argued that biofuels provide an answer to reducing these emissions. The reason biofuels are being pushed through so fast is the industry’s need for ‘zero carbon growth’. Effectively, biofuels are seen by the industry as their best means of achieving sustainability in carbon emissions yet still allowing for expansion and growth.

But is this true? Well firstly the Aviation industry is aided by the fact that all biofuels are classed as carbon-neutral despite any environmental impacts. While greenhouse gas savings are assumed by using biofuel as opposed to fossil fuels, Almuth Ernsting of BiofuelWatch for Airport Watch argues this not to be the case, pointing out that many scientific studies have shown that the full climate impacts of biofuels have in some cases been even worse than the fossil fuels they look to replace.

While Airlines are looking into a variety of different biofuel feedstocks, there are still large technical hurdles, and even with the mass planting of Jatropha, commercial yields are hard to produce. Plus when we take into account that its mass planting over 4 years has forced the eviction of many farmers and indigenous communities, with no commercial scale yields produced, it is hard to argue in favour of it.

All other feedstocks are in the research and development stages, and a long way from any commercial value. In light of this it seems set that for the foreseeable future, palm oil is the best source for commercial yields as it is not only the cheapest feedstock, but also the one most capable of higher yields. But still to produce commercial yields will take hectares upon hectares of land, and while aviation companies and biofuel producers talk of palm oil as being temporary until other feedstock sources can be fully developed, it still does not reverse the environmental damage done to rainforest and peatland, and indigenous communities, all of which will be destroyed for palm oil.
As of March 2011 we will begin to see the first passenger flights using biofuels. As Rainforest Rescue note, Lufthansa Germany has recently published plans to provide the world’s first commercial flights using a biofuel blend that includes palm oil. Neste Oil will be the providers from their Singapore biodiesel refinery, which is the world’s largest, and runs exclusively on palm oil. As Ernsting notes, their main supplier is the Malaysian IOI Corporation, who is responsible for large-scale destruction of rainforests, peatlands and fields being cultivated by local farmers in large parts of South East Asia, such as Sarawak and Kalimantan.

IOI is one of the main companies investing in a 1 million hectare oil palm expansion programme that was recently announced by the Government of Sarawak and which will primarily convert forests which belong to indigenous peoples. And so the damage risks are large in terms of the displacement of peoples, deforestation and destruction of grasslands. This will hurt not only indigenous communities, but also inhabiting species. In fact, Biofuel Watch note that if just one British airline, Ryanair, was to replace all kerosene with biofuels, they would require at least 407,500 hectares of oil palm plantations – or 1.25 million hectares of camelina ones.
The environmental damage from such a move would be immense for reasons I have stated. On face value biofuels may seem like a good idea, but right now with palm oil the only possible source, the environmental impacts outweigh any benefits.

FoE has campaigned against Biofuels targets without proper research into the effects and has shown that they actually increase carbon emissions: http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/press_releases/biofuels_double_carbon_emissions_15042009.html
Rainforest Rescue has begun an email action against the Lufthansa plans, if you would like to get involved please visit: http://www.rainforest-rescue.org.

Tom Hulme

1 comment:

Skip Hire Birmingham said...

Biofuel for aviation is a great idea and should be subsidized or at least supported by governments around the world. Does if effect engine performance in any way?