A new plan to accelerate production of biofuels for passenger planes has drawn stinging criticism from environmentalists who argue that most of the world’s rainforests might have to be cleared to produce the necessary crops.
Aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, with an 8% leap reported in Europe last year and a global fourfold increase in CO2 pollution expected by 2050.
To rein this back, the industry has promised carbon neutral growth by 2020 – to be met by biofuels, if a blueprint is approved at an International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao) conference in Mexico City tomorrow.
The “green jet fuel” plan would ramp up the use of aviation biofuels to 5m tonnes a year by 2025, and 285m tonnes by 2050 – enough to cover half of overall demand for international aviation fuel.
But this is also three times more biofuels than the world currently produces, and advanced biofuels are still at too early a stage of development to make up the difference.
Environmentalists say that the most credible alternative fuel source would be hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO), even though this would probably trigger a boom in palm oil plantations and a corresponding spike in deforestation.
Klaus Schenk of Rainforest Rescue said: “Citizens around the world are very concerned about burning palm oil in planes. The vast use of palm oil for aviation biofuels would destroy the world’s rainforests, the basis of life for local people and the habitats of endangered species such as orangutans. We urge Icao to scrap its misguided biofuels plan.”
It is impossible to quantify the precise extent of deforestation that the proposal could cause, but based on the Malaysian Palm Oil Council’s crude palm oil yields and Total conversion figures, Biofuelwatch estimate that 82.3m hectares of land (316,603 sq miles) would be needed to meet the target, if it were sourced from palm oil alone. That is more than three times the size of the UK.
Carlos Calvo Ambel, a spokesman for Transport and Environment, said: “Most biofuels are worse for the climate than jet fuel. Quality should always go before quantity. Establishing a goal even before the rules are set out is putting the cart before the horse. The European experience has been that biofuels targets sucked in palm oil exports whose emissions were far greater than those of fossil fuels.”
T&E, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth are among nearly 100 environmental groupsprotesting the proposal, while 181,000 people have signed a petition calling for the initiative to be scrapped.
Inside the conference hall, several states are also opposing the biofuels pitch which, if passed, is expected to go on to an Icao assembly for formal adoption within two years.
Brazil and Indonesia strongly support the plan but China has questioned its feasibility, the EU wants more robust sustainability criteria, and the US says it will not support globally coordinated emissions reductions targets.
An industry proposal to limit the biofuels target to 2025 is one possible compromise, but others may emerge before the plan is put to a vote.
Almuth Ernsting, a spokeswoman for Biofuelwatch, said the current proposed target was “so huge that it would be unlikely to be fulfilled – but you could still have massive negative impacts from much smaller uses of palm oil”.
Within four years of the EU setting a binding target to source 10% of its transport fuel from renewable sources in 2009, studies show that European investors had bought 6m hectares of land for biofuels production in sub-Saharan Africa.
The EU took very little of its biofuel feedstock from Africa in the end, but the use of palm oil from elsewhere for biodiesel had soared 500% by 2014, according to industry trade figures.
Letter to ICAO, from hundreds of organisations, calling on it to oppose the promotion of biofuels in aviation
ICAO supports the aviation industry’s quest for unending rapid growth, a quest which is incompatible with keeping global warming to 1.5oC or even 2oC per (a goal endorsed by the Paris Agreement). Greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation alone grew by 87% between 1990 and 2014 and are rising faster than those from almost any other sector. Efficiency improvements lag far behind growth in the number of air passengers worldwide and there are no available techno-fixes which would allow planes to fly without burning hydrocarbon fuels. ICAO hopes for vast-scale use of biofuels in aircraft: it wants to see 128 million tonnes of biofuels a year being burned in plane engines by 2040, going up to 285 million tonnes (half of all aviation fuel) by 2050. By comparison, some 82 million tonnes of biofuels a year are currently used in transport worldwide. The only aviation biofuels which can currently be produced reliably and at scale – although they are still expensive – are made from vegetable oils and animal fats, using a technology called hydrotreatment. Any large-scale use of aviation biofuels made from hydrotreated vegetable oils (HVO) would almost certainly rely on palm oil. That would be an environmental disaster. See details of the letter to ICAO from Biofuelwatch signed by hundreds of organisations
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Biofuelwatch to publish report about aviation biofuels ahead of ICAO high-level conference
From 11th to 13th October, ICAO will be holding a High-Level Conference on Alternative Aviation Fuels, in Mexico City. ICAO’s Secretariat has published a proposed “Vision” which would see 128 million tonnes of biofuels per year used in aircraft by 2040 and 285 million tonnes by 2050. By comparison, a total of 82 million tonnes of biofuels was produced worldwide for all uses last year. ICAO and airlines are keen to promote biofuels as solution to their CO2 problems. Greater efficiencies cannot possibly cancel out the impacts on CO2 emissions of the industry’s expected rapid, continuous growth. Meaningful measures to curb aviation CO2 emissions would be incompatible with an airline’s shareholder profits. The aviation sector hopes to use carbon offsetting (condemned by over 100 civil society groups last year) and biofuels (which, contrary to scientific evidence, continue to be largely classified as zero carbon). There is no possibility of producing the vast quantities of biofuels that would be needed for such an endeavour without disastrous impacts on forests, on the climate, on food prices, food sovereignty, on human rights and land rights. The prospect of even limited use of biofuels in aircraft is particularly concerning, especially if palm oil is used. There will be a new report on 6th October, and a Webinair on 6th October (4pm).
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Algae biofuel claims overhyped – GE algae risks to environment if they escape
A new report suggests that industrial scale production of biofuels and chemicals via genetically engineered (GE) microorganisms such as GE algae pose serious environmental and health risks. Microalgae Biofuels: Myths and Risks and a companion briefing, published by Biofuelwatch and Friends of the Earth US., reveals that even after decades of investment, viable commercial production of algae biofuels has failed and is unlikely to succeed. There are already problems caused by algal blooms in some places, and it therefore seems very unwise to be encouraging mass-scale production – with the inevitable accidental release of GE microalgae into the environment. Many of the traits that are being engineered to create algal ‘chemical factories’ could result in their outcompeting and proliferating out of control in the wild. These organisms could become ‘living pollution’ that is impossible to recall. The continued market hype about GE algae biofuels as sustainable, claims of unrealistic productivity, and historic promises of commercial viability just over the horizon perpetuate the myth of a “miracle fuel” and that unsustainable energy consumption may continue “business as usual.”
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