Biofuels for Aviation – NOT the brilliantly “sustainable” solution the industry makes out

Biofuels are not the future for aviation. The hype about their sustainbility and being the low carbon future for the aviation industry does not bear close examination.  For aviation to try and fuel itself using a high proportion of biofuels in coming decades would lead to very serious environmental and social consequences. The industry is desperate to find a means, any means, to continue with their “business as usual” growth, in times of an increasing price of kerosene and increasing curbs on carbon emissions.  Biofuels are not the answer.  Aviation biofuels need to be opposed, strenuously.


News   Stories showing the use of biofuels by airlines, test and commercial flights.  Aviation Biofuels News   


Leaflet   Short leaflet – Beware the biofuel hype!   Beware aviation biofuels   —————————– 

CCC   The Committee on Climate Change report on the future of UK aviation. Biofuels included in future plans (P11).

Links  Organisations working on biofuels. Organisations   

Reports   Reports etc on biofuels for aviation  Briefings and Publications 


Scoping Document
The UK government DfT  consulted (ended 20th October 2011) on its future aviation policy.  Biofuels are included P24. Scoping Document
 – also questions.
The second DfT consultation will start in March 2012.
Flights so far  Airlines and flights that have used, or will use, biofuel.  Biofuelled flights 


Wikipedia  Wikipedia on some of the issues with biofuels. Wikipedia page  


 SWAFEA  Sustainable Way for Alternative Fuels and Energy in Aviation, for the European Commission has just been produced.  Advocates 2% biofuel. SWAFEA study 


Milieudefensie biomass

Table of biofuel flights up to May 2012from  page 6



Beware Biofuels!

Why are airlines now planning to fly on biofuels?

Over the past year or two there has been a sudden increase in the extent of research being done on producing “drop in” biofuels (ones which behave exactly like ordinary aviation kerosene, and do not need any engine modifications) for aircraft.  This has progressed rapidly, various test flights have been flown, some forms of fuel have been certified for use, and several airlines have now flown planes – including commercial flights – with up to 50% biofuel in an engine.  Many companies are eagerly anticipating huge profits from this novel sector, rubbing their hands in glee.
The aviation industry hopes that biofuels will be their salvation, and remove in one stroke two of their basic problems.  They are desperate to continue with rapid growth for decades to come. However, their first problem is the price of fuel, its availability and the reliability of its supply in the future. The second is the amount of carbon emitted by aircraft – truly one of the most carbon intensive forms of travel known to man, particularly as it enables an individual to travel so far in such a short time.  Cuts to carbon emissions are having to be contemplated, even by the global aviation industry.
Biofuels are unlikely to be the dreamed for solution that airlines hope for, on either fuel supply, or carbon emissions.
With increasing numbers of people across the planet who need to be fed, and many millions now choosing to eat a more Western diet, there will not be sufficient land available to grow the immense quantities of fuel that the aviation industry is anticipating being able to get its hands on in future years. Certainly not without huge social impacts, huge effects on the price of food, and great destruction to habitats and biodiversity.
AirportWatch and its member organisations are very concerned about this recent and rapid uptake of biofuels, for a number of reasons.  Though it seems likely that the ball is now rolling, and there will unavoidably be some use of biofuel in aircraft in the short term, it is hoped both that this will be in very small amounts and that the use of biofuels in aviation will merely be a short-lived phenomenon, and their use will be phased out rapidly.
The UK government is now consulting on its new aviation policy, the 2003 Aviation White Paper now being out of date. There is a Scoping Document consultation that lasts until September 2011, and then a full consultation during 2012. The final policy will be published in 2013. Biofuels are under consideration as part of future aviation growth in the UK.  (details below)

Biofuels are not benign

Biofuels are only problem-free when used locally on a small-scale.  The large-scale, industrial, use of biofuels creates many serious problems.  Biofuels need land on which to grow.  In the warm countries of the Global South, where biofuels are most easily and productively grown, but where land is scarce, it means less land is available for food crops.  This means other areas, such as scrub land or forests, are being pressed into service for food production which, in turn, poses a very real risk to habitats, biodiversity and eco-systems. 

The aviation industry hopes that future production of biofuels will come from algae, which would probably not compete with food production.  However, the production of algal biofuels is likely to be difficult and possibly problematic because it requires a great deal of warmth and water.  Its commercial production is decades away.

Biofuels are not a carbon magic bullet for CO2

Biofuels are not the magic bullet to eliminate CO2 emissions.  The Committee on Climate Change, in its December 2009 report, said that the extent of biofuels’ contribution to aviation fuel is not likely to be more than 10% by 2050, giving a 5% reduction in carbon emissions (due to the doubling of the climate effect of aviation emissions at altitude, which biofuels cannot deal with). 

And, of course, the loss of forests that will result from the land needed for large-scale biofuel production will increase CO2 problems – both because those areas will no longer sequester as much CO2, and due to CO2 release from soil breakdown.
The “safe” level of CO2 in the global atmosphere is 350 ppm. This would avoid the risk of runaway climate change, and of positive feedback cycles by which warming  then causes more warming.  We are at 390 ppm CO2 (data from Mauna Loa ) and the rate of increase is increasing, rapidly moving us to, at least very high risk of, or near certainty of runaway climate change.  The only realistic way in which humanity can reduce and stabilize CO2 is to burn fewer fuels – fossil or otherwise – and active measures to preserve and re-establish our biosphere.
Creating a biofuel industry does exactly the opposite of this. Worst still, the biofuel industry is looking primarily at growth around the tropical belt, which is the area of the world that has the highest rate of CO2 sequestration. by plants.  The industry has to grow here because this is the area of the world were the fastest rate of vegetation growth can be achieved.

Biofuels are seen by the aviation industry primarily as a substitute for oil

The aviation industry’s big problem is its dependence on kerosene.  It is under pressure to find an alternative because of the CO2 it emits but, much more so, because of the impact of the end of cheap oil as ‘peak oil’ kicks in.  It sees biofuels as its answer.  In the short term the aviation industry is prepared to use biofuels which it knows are not problem-free, such as palm oil, jatropha and camelina, while pushing for subsidies and grants from Government to research the development of what is calls ‘sustainable’ biofuels such as those produced by algae.

Biofuels are profitable for the mega-corporations

There is a huge agenda driven by mega-corporations that are now leading the drive into biofuels. Much money can be made from aviation biofuels, and instead of growing biofuels with an intention of reducing climate impacts, they are just being produced as a profitable commodity.  The hype has already sparked financial speculation among venture capitalists.  In Africa and Mexico speculation is causing land grabs even before contracts for the fuel are signed.

We don’t have the answers but we know that research and development of biofuels are a distraction.
Get in touch
If you share our concerns about biofuels being used by aviation in future, and want to do something or find out more, please get in touch so we can keep you up to date.

How will we campaign against the rise of aviation biofuels?

We need to challenge and undermine what the aviation industry is claiming about biofuels.

1.  Highlight the problems with biofuels

• Biofuels for aviation compete with food for land in the Global South, to due to indirect land use effects.

• Biofuel production can lead, directly or indirectly, to the loss of forests and other uncultivated land, and biodiversity.  Loss of forests causes changes to local climate and rainfall, adversely affecting agriculture. 

• Biofuels for aviation have critical social costs for communities affected by the growth of the feedstock plants, and due to increases in the price of food – as well as access to, and ownership of, land.

• Biofuels for aviation contribute towards higher food costs for UK and other developed country consumers, not only those people in poorer countries. 

• Biofuels such as algae, which don’t compete with land, are difficult to grow, may yet throw up unforeseen problems and are decades away from commercial production. 

• Biofuels are not the magic bullet for dealing with aviation’s CO2 emissions.

• Aviation biofuels are inextricably linked with biofuels for road transport, which have already had highly damaging results.

2.  Highlight and challenge what the aviation industry is saying and doing

• Aviation’s unjustified claims that biofuels will significantly cut CO2 emissions

• Aviation’s real motivation for biofuels: peak oil is driving its need for an alternative fuel

• Aviation’s greenwash that it is only prepared to use ‘sustainable’ biofuels that don’t compete with land for food production.  Even if aviation could source a supply of less damaging biofuels, the indirect effect is that another user will then be obliged to use more damaging fuels.

• Combusted at altitude, biofuels produce approximately the same non-CO2 climate changing effects  such as NOx and contrails, as kerosene in addition to the CO2. This roughly doubles the climate impact of aircraft fuel compared to its use on the ground.  Biofuel does not reduce this problem.

• Aviation is not a unique case needing biofuels, as the industry argues it cannot use electricity.  Road vehicles and trains will not be able to be mainly powered by renewably produced electricity for many decades to come, if at all.  Road vehicles will continue to require liquid fuels, and any biofuel that could be sustainably produced would be better used for necessary ground based transport, which is more carbon efficient.

3.  Push for an overall reduction in flying

Unless there is a reduction in flight numbers, the industry will have no choice, given the onset of peak oil, to use every kind of biofuel to fuel its expansion.  It is also driving production of liquid fossil fuels from tar sands, from Arctic and deep-sea drilling and other environmentally damaging means of extracting oil that is increasingly more difficult to access.

To encourage a cut in flight numbers:

• Oppose the tax-breaks the aviation industry receives

• Oppose government subsidies or incentives for biofuel research or development.

• Oppose targets for biofuel use in aviation in future; press for a carbon tax or equivalent

• Challenge the aviation industry’s claims to be a special case in terms of fuel requirements.

• Increase public awareness of the true environmental and social cost of flights burning biofuels

4.  Reveal the way biofuel production has become big business

• The extent of speculation and profiteering by big business and venture capitalists

• The land-grabs taking place in the Global South to maintain the lifestyle of the rich world

• Biofuels, along with the likes of tar sands, have become the new frontier for ruthless speculators

5.  Campaign for other kerosene alternatives

• The possibility of alternative fuels that are genuinely environmentally and socially sustainble should be explored

• Travel by very fuel efficient vehicles such as airships should be seriously considered

6.  Work with other organisations on biofuel

• Link up with other organisations such as BiofuelWatch, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF and development organisations such as Action Aid, Oxfam and the World Development Movement opposing industrial biofuels, whether for road vehicles or for aviation

• Produce/publicise research papers and information sheets as required

• Inform our supporters that biofuels are not benign
• Support and take part in relevant public actions in association with other organisations.

Some organisations working on biofuels:

Biofuelwatch and Biofuelwatchlinks 

Friends of the Earth UK

Friends of the Earth International

Action Aid

Biofuels and Hunger



Biomass and Biofuels in the Renewable Energy Directive

Almuth Ernsting,  (Biofuelwatch)  January 2009

 Does the Renewable Energy Directive promote biofuels for aviation and/or shipping?

The 10% biofuel target applies to “land transport” only. Aviation fuel and fuel used
in shipping is taken into account when calculating Member States’ overall energy use,
important for calculating the 20% ‘renewable energy’ target. The amount of aviation
fuel considered is ‘capped’, which means that for states with a high aviation volume [ eg. the UK], the full aviation fuel will not be taken into account. Any quantity of biofuels used for
aviation would count towards the 10%, which means it will be deducted from the 10%
target which needs to be fulfilled by ‘land transport’. Any biofuel use for aviation and
shipping would thus not be additional to the 10% target. (Article 33 on Page 19 of the Directive)
By 2020, 20% of all energy used in the EU has to come from ‘renewable sources’ including biomass, bioliquids and biogas. This translates into different targets for individual Member States. An ‘indicative trajectory’ is introduced, i.e. Member States have to show that they are increasing their use of ‘renewable energy’ over every two-year period. This comprises all types of energy use, though with a cap on the amount of aviation fuel which taken into account.


A few articles on biofuels:

 Aviation biofuels target threatens food prices  22.6.2011 (Friends of the Earth)

Biofuels policy at the crossroads   18.5.2011 (Friends of the Earth)

Europe’s demand for palm oil driving deforestation and land-grabbing 15.3.2011 (Friends of the Earth International)

New study reveals biofuels carbon con 22.3.2011 (Action Aid)

New Biofuels report shows how Europe is driving hunger   15.2.2010  (Action Aid) 

Report: current UK and European biofuels policies are unethical   13.4.2011 (Action Aid)

Can wildlife survive the biofuels surge?   14.4.2008  (RSPB 

Can biofuels be sustainable?   25.2.2008 (RSPB)

Bio-fuelling Poverty  Why the EU renewable-fuel target may be disastrous for poor people  1.11.2007 (Oxfam) 

Biofuels solution to aviation emissions   6.5.2011 (The Environmentalist) 

The Guardian on Biofuels