Aviation biofuels: debunking the greenwash

In the space of a few paragraphs, the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s web page about Alternative Fuels uses the word ‘sustainable’ ten times. IATA lists biofuels ‘derived from sustainable oil crops such as jatropha, camelina and algae or from wood and waste biomass.’ The majority of these aviation biofuels that are in use, and approaching commercialisation, are made from edible crops, depleting food supplies. Biofuels made from inedible feedstocks are only produced in small volumes, and, if production is scaled up, vast swathes of ecosystems will be destroyed.

The first crop on IATA’s list, jatropha, is an inedible shrub. Hyped as a potential alternative to biofuel from edible crops, jatropha wasplanted as a biofuel crop in many African and Asian countries, but failed to provide viable yields on infertile land. Smallholders who had been persuaded, or coerced, into growing jatropha on farmland did not make an income from it; others were forcibly evicted to make way for plantations.

Next on IATA’s list of biofuels is camelina, a nutritious oilseed crop high in Omega 3 fatty acids. The EU supports feeding planes with this edible crop. €10 million has been allocated to the ITAKA (Initiative Towards sustAinable Kerosene for Aviation), to establish an aviation biofuel supply chain using camelina grown in Europe, primarily in Spain. In May, as part of the ITAKA project, KLM began the longest ever series of biofuel demonstration flights. Initial flights are to be powered by used cooking oil, but subsequent flights are expected to use camelina.

IATA fails to mention aviation biofuels made from other edible feedstocks. California based Byogy Renewables, in partnership with Avianca Brasil, a Brazilian airline, seeks to commercialise aviation biofuel made from sugarcane. An industry article anticipated that it will be years before other agricultural feedstocks become cost effective. Another Brazilian airline, GOL, will begin commercial flights using sugarcane biofuel, made by Amyris-Total, at the end of July. The Chinese government has approved use of aviation biofuel made from palm oil and used cooking oil. Palm oil is edible. The mention of ‘used cooking oil’ sounds reassuring, but supplies are dwarfed by the volumes required to fill planes’ fuel tanks. A study by the Oakland Institute showed that, in the US, a year’s supply of used cooking oil would only be sufficient to keep the nation’s fleet in the air for three days. Also, diversion of used cooking oil to fuel supplies impacts on the food chain, as it is used in animal feed.

Algae grows on water, so has been seized on as a biofuel feedstock which will not displace food crops. In 2007, Boeing gave credence to a wildly optimistic yield projection - that an area the size of Belgium would be sufficient to fuel the world’s current fleet of aircraft. Seven years later, minute quantities of algal biofuels have been produced. Boeing says that algae biofuel will not be cost competitive until the mid-2020s at the earliest, if ever, and is hailing another supposed miracle biofuel: halophytes, saltwater plants. Cultivation of a test plot covering a mere two hectares will commence in 2015, so halophytes will not be supplying a meaningful proportion of the world’s jet fuel use any time soon. If the envisioned 500 hectare plot materialises, it will displace existing coastal ecosystems.

There are several initiatives aiming to produce jet fuel from wood, but the volumes required would lead to deforestation, as evidenced by use of wood in power stations in Europe: demand for ‘residues’ outpaces production, leading to use of logs and whole trees. The world’s first facility for converting landfill waste into jet fuel will soon be constructed to the east of London, in Thurrock, at the ‘GreenSky’ plant, a partnership between British Airways (BA) and bioenergy firm Solena. Producing biofuel from waste also raises the alarm over the sheer volumes required. Initially utilising half a million tonnes of ‘waste’ annually, the plant is expected to provide just 2 per cent of BA’s fuel use. Furthermore, consigning vast amounts of organic matter to the waste stream for processing into biofuel precludes all kinds of possibilities for re-use, or recycling: wood could be re-used, some food waste could be used as animal feed, many types of organic matter could be composted to nourish crops.

As yet, there is no sign of technological advances that could achieve sustainable aviation biofuels. And burning vast amounts of biomass will only provide a small percentage of global jet fuel use, which stands at 5 million barrels per day. As recently as March, Boeing’s Sustainable Biofuel Strategy Director, Darrin Morgan stated: ‘It would be a significant milestone if we can get biofuels to one per cent of the total jet fuel demand.’ There must be an indefinite moratorium on aviation biofuels. In our resource constrained world, we must prioritise feeding people and conserving ecosystems.

Rose Bridger is the author of Plane Truth: Aviation’s Real Impact on People and the Environment, published by Pluto Press.

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