Biofuels News

Below are links to stories about aviation biofuels.

Large group of Dutch scientists demands end to crop-based biofuels in the EU

A group of 177 Dutch scientists have signed a letter urging the Netherlands to back a complete phase-out of crop-based biofuels at European level, calling them a “false solution to climate problems”. According to the EU's own data, the climate impact of biodiesel is on average 80% worse than fossil diesel.  The EU study found that crop-based biodiesel has on average 1.8 times the climate impact of fossil diesel, “and this number increases to 3 times more in the case of biodiesel from palm oil”.  Biodiesel accounts for 80% of all biofuels used in the EU, and around a third of this comes from palm oil, making drivers of cars and trucks the biggest consumers of palm oil in Europe. The remaining 20% is bioethanol, which is mainly made from home-grown crops such as sugar beet and wheat. The biofuels industry - predictably - is not pleased and claim the move would "slash investment in advanced biofuels." The push for ever more biofuels from plants is driving habitat and biodiversity loss, reducing areas’ resilience to local climatic conditions, undermining food security and increasing prices, and concentrating land in the hands of multinational companies at the expense of small-scale farmers. EU governments will discuss the future of biofuels at the Energy Council meeting on 18 December.  These fuels should never be allowed for the aviation sector.

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Likely that ICAO aims to drastically weaken “sustainability” standards for aviation biofuel, under CORSIA

The European Commission and EU member states look set to agree to almost entirely remove sustainability criteria for bio jet fuel at the UN’s aviation agency (ICAO) Council meeting in Montreal.  ICAO hopes that extensive use of biofuels in future will enable aviation CO2 emissions to be reduced, so the industry's continuous growth will not be hampered. Biofuels could only be properly environmentally sustainable in tiny quantities, if stringent standards are adhered to. But now the countries gathered at the ICAO meeting plan to trash 10 sustainability points out of 12, which will mean that highly unsustainable biofuels would qualify for the aviation’s global carbon offsetting scheme, CORSIA.  These sustainability rules have implications beyond CORSIA because they will become the de facto global standard for biofuel use in the aviation sector. The 10 points would mean removal of rules on land rights, food security, labour rights and biodiversity protection. It is likely the 2 remaining are for a 10% greenhouse gas reduction target for biofuels compared to regular jet fuel, and a ban on crops grown on land that was deforested after 2009. The NGO Transport & Environment says this shows how the CORSIA scheme is a shambles, and the EU should withdraw from it.

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Aviation biofuels plan would use palm oil and ‘destroy rainforests’ – warn 200+ environmental organisations

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 is hoping for what it (unrealistically) calls "carbon neutral growth" by 2020 – to be met by biofuels, and offsets. The “green jet fuel” plan would increase the use of aviation biofuels to 5m tonnes per year by 2025, and 285m tonnes by 2050 – enough to cover half of overall demand for international aviation fuel. This is 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. The vast use of palm oil for aviation biofuels would destroy the world’s rainforests, vital to life for local people and the habitats of endangered species such as orangutans. Over 200 environmental organisations are urging ICAO to scrap its misguided biofuels plan.

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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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Algal biofuel production is neither environmentally nor commercially sustainable – blow to aviation hopes

Modern biofuels have been touted as a greener alternative to petrol and diesel since the early 1900s. Professor Kevin Flynn, of Swansea University, says though it seems like a good idea on paper, and they do work – their use and production doesn’t come without problems. The first generation of biofuels – mainly ethanol made from plant crops – and second generation, derived from plant and animal waste streams, both led to concerns about competition for land and nutrients between biofuels production and food production. It was with a lot of hope, and hype, that production of the third generation of biofuels was started. Unlike their predecessors, these biofuels are derived from algae, and so in theory the food vs fuel dilemma of crop-based biofuels would be solved. Huge sums of money have been spent trying to get the algal marvel to work, refining the engineering process, electrically lighting the crop – which grows in a liquid suspension – harvesting and draining it. However the hype has been misplaced.  Research has found that the production of algal biofuels is neither commercially nor environmentally sustainable. The attainable production levels are a fraction of those that were claimed. The algae cannot produce enough oil, without vast areas, or vast input of fertilisers etc. The process cannot be scaled up adequately.

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RAE report (over) optimistic that 2nd generation transport biofuels will help cut aviation CO2

The Royal Academy of Engineering has produced a report on second generation biofuels, commissioned by the UK’s transport and energy government departments, DfT and BEIS.  It looks at the viability of "sustainable" second generation liquid biofuels, including their use in aviation. The report says the aviation sector, as well as shipping and heavy goods vehicles (which all need a great deal of energy, but cannot use electricity) are considered a priority for the development and use of biofuels. Biofuel is already used in road transport, though it is probably often producing more environmental harm, and more CO2, even than conventional fuels. Little progress has been made on biofuels for aviation and even less for shipping. The industry wants government money to subsidise research into these fuels, to "incentivise the development of second generation biofuels such as those derived from wastes and agricultural, forest and sawmill residues."  Just how genuinely "sustainable" environmentally these fuels might ever be is unknown - the early ones were very environmentally harmful. The government is very keen to grow the aviation sector, though aware the carbon emissions from doing so are likely to mean the Climate Change Act is put at risk. So they are placing faith in these (magical) fuels to solve the problems - but it is likely their faith will prove to be misplaced.

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Vegetable oils biofuels should be phased out by 2020 – their CO2 emissions are higher than fossil diesel

The aviation industry has great hopes - unjustifiably - that it will be able to magically locate low carbon "green" fuels in future, that will emit less carbon per litre than fossil jet fuel. Various niche plant oils have been tried, and quietly dropped (the inedible ones that could grow on soils not good enough for human crops are not commercially viable). So far it is not thought that the industry would be so bold as to try to claim use of plant oils like palm oil, rapeseed oil or soya oil could make suitable "sustainable" jet fuels, knowing the bad publicity of burning oils that compete with human food, in jet engines. But plant oils are used in immense amounts as biodiesel for cars and vans, including in Europe. Figures show that this, rather than cutting the overall CO2 emissions (which was the intention by the EU) in practice ends in higher lifecycle emissions than fossil based fuels. On average, biodiesel from virgin vegetable oil leads to around 80% higher CO2 emissions than the fossil diesel. Palm oil has the highest greenhouse gas emissions - about 300% those of fossil diesel - because of deforestation [including habitat and wildlife loss] and peatland drainage needed to set up the plantations, in places like Indonesia. In 2015 46% of all palm oil imported into the EU was burned in vehicles as biodiesel (45% as human or animal food, and 9% burned for electricity or heat.)

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Aviation biofuels: “Won’t get fooled again” – why they will not solve aviation’s CO2 problems

An analyst with Transport & Environment questions whether biofuels could ever make more than a minute impact on aviation carbon emissions. He says we know from past experience with biofuels for road vehicles that they can actually be worse for the environment than the fossil fuels they replace. Unless biofuels are sourced very carefully indeed, they rise causing drastic changes in land use, including deforestation and peatland drainage. Even if biofuels could be produced on land currently used for agriculture, this means there are indirect land use changes (ILUC) meaning that whatever was previously produced there needs to be produced somewhere else. ie. the result may be cutting down forests to create new land to grow crops. Guarantees are needed to ensure that fuels worse than kerosene are not promoted - in terms of carbon emissions, but also loss of wildlife or violation of human rights. "The aviation sector often hypes up a new technology as the solution to its climate problem, only to admit that it is not feasible or prohibitively expensive. It quickly moves on to another ‘solution’. All this serves to convince policymakers that sustainable aviation is around the corner. Biofuels may be the latest example of this strategy." Aviation biofuels, at a very minimum, must be better on carbon and environmental impact than fuels they replace.

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