Aviation industry presses for biofuels support from governments

Under pressure to cut CO2 the aviation industry is urging policymakers to support the development of biofuels for aircraft but their use remains a novelty due to limited supply and high cost. Industry officials are urging governments to help lift supplies,  IATA hopes they airlines can in future use biofuels and so get an (utterly unrealistic) drop in CO2 emissions of 80%. IATA wants government policies to de-risk investment, and provide subsidies to support research, plant development and refining capacity. The industry wants to use 30% biofuels by 2030 and 50% by 2040. Aviation wants road vehicles to use electricity, so they can use the liquid oils.  UNEP realises that plant based biofuels may not reduce carbon emissions or even lead to an increase. T&E says aviation could be falling into the same trap as ground transportation in believing that biofuels are easy on the planet.  Biofuels, through their life cycle, may be more pernicious than traditional fuels.


Aviation industry presses for biofuels support

Published 10 July 2012, updated  22 August 2012 ( Euractiv )


Under pressure to cut carbon emissions, the aviation industry is urging policymakers to support the development of biofuels for aircraft in the same way they have done for road transport. EurActiv reports from the Farnborough Airshow.

Biofuels were cleared for aviation use in June 2011 so long as they are blended with traditional jet fuel, and their use remains a novelty due to limited supply and high cost.

Industry officials are urging governments to help lift supplies, much as policies in the EU and United States have created a flourishing market in plant-based oils for cars and lorries. The industry contends that sustainable fuels – when combined with aerodynamic design, efficient engines and improved air traffic handling – will reduce emissions even as passenger traffic grows.

Tony Tyler, director-general of the International Air Transport Association, says the oil derived from plants could reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by up to 80% in the decades ahead.

“They have already powered more than 1,500 commercial flights,” he told the trade group’s recent annual meeting in Beijing. “But to increase utilisation, costs need to come down and the supply needs to increase. That will only happen with government policies to de-risk investment, including setting global standards.”

The Air Transport Action Group, or ATAG, reports that biofuels are expected to account for less than 1% of the industry’s fuel supplies this year, rising to 30% by 2030 and 50% a decade later. The Geneva-based industry organisation, which promotes environmental sustainability, has urged governments to support research, plant development and refining capacity to achieve those targets.

Policies turned upside down

Others in the industry say government policies such as those in the European Union that support biofuels on the ground may be turned upside down.

Alan H. Epstein, vice president for technology and the environment at aircraft engine-maker Pratt & Whitney, says when it comes to curtailing emissions, it makes better sense to have more electric cars and lorries than vehicles burning plant oil.

“The fundamental point is airplanes don’t have an option,” Epstein told EurActiv in an interview in Brussels.

“As Europe becomes greener for power generation, it makes more sense to think about electrification [for transportation],” he said. “In Europe, the automobile trips are shorter, the cars are smaller, so electrification may make even more sense than it does larger parts of North America.”

The industry is so convinced of the merits of biofuels that it used the recent sustainable development conference in Rio de Janeiro to stage a media event. Raymond Benjamin, who heads the International Civil Aviation Organisation, landed in the Brazilian city on 19 June after having flown from his base in Montréal on airliners using biofuels.

“I am proud to have been able to serve as a symbolic passenger on this ‘Flightpath to a Sustainable Future’,” Benjamin said, adding that bio-fuelled aircraft “are one of the many steps aviation is now taking in that direction.”

A not so soft landing

But not everyone agrees that Benjamin’s flight was sustainable or even a model for the future.

The United Nations Environment Programme warned in a recent report that even though burning plant-based fuels can produce significantly lower levels of carbon emissions, production and land clearing to make way for new crops “may reduce carbon-savings or even lead to an increase.”

Bill Hemmings, who monitors aviation policy in Brussels for the green NGO Transport and Environment, agrees.

Hemmings believes the aviation industry could be falling into the same trap as ground transportation in believing that biofuels are easy on the planet. Greenhouse gases emitted during production, he said, added to concerns over the impact of clearing land and tapping water and other resources needed to sustain fuel plants – especially in developing and emerging nations – may eventually make biofuels more pernicious than traditional fuels.

Such concerns about both direct and indirect impacts from plant cultivation have led Transport and Environment and other environmentalists to press the European Commission to rethink its mandate for 10% biofuel use in ground transport by 2020. (see article below).

“This huge industry is being built, not on a house of cards, but without a solid foundation and that foundation will shift seismically if indirect land-use change is properly addressed,” Hemmings said in an interview. “So why go and build another aviation mountain which is going to have the foundation shaken once this is sorted out.”

He also disagrees with Tyler and others calling for more government support of biofuels in aviation, noting that the industry already gets big subsidies – such as tax exemptions for aviation fuels – that could fund development of alternatives fuels.

Magda Stoczkiewicz, director of Friends of the Earth Europe, is also wary of the aviation industry’s call for public support of biofuels when the full impact of production, refining and delivery has not been weighed.

“Our position is that for the moment, we don’t see how the big amounts of biofuels needed for aviation can be produced sustainably,” Stoczkiewicz told EurActiv.


Under pressure

Still, aviation officials say they have to do something, both to meet passenger demand and reduce carbon emissions in an industry that accounts for the biggest growth in greenhouse gases. They say the price for that shift is high – today’s aviation biofuels cost as much as 10 times more than conventional fuels.

Despite the current economic situation, air traffic is expected to double or even triple by 2020 worldwide. The EU wants to cut both carbon dioxide emissions – through itscontroversial Emissions Trading System – as well as improvements in air traffic management. Globally, international airline associations, airports, navigation service providers and manufacturers have agreed to improve fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5% per year and halve emissions by 2050 from 2005 levels.

Concerns about energy supply and price vulnerability are other motivators – for instance, the 2011 revolution in Libya sent oil prices soaring despite weakened global demand. An EU-US-backed oil embargo on Iran also could disrupt supplies.

Airlines are already taking steps to cut weight and improve efficiency. Each generation of aircraft being produced by leading manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing are more aerodynamic, lighter and more durable. On the ground, efforts to cut taxi time and delays at the gate save fuel and reduce emissions.

Meanwhile, industry figures show that new engine technology that is just coming onto the market is 16% more efficient than those in use today.

But Hemmings says all this is expensive and by calling for more attention to aviation biofuels, the industry is buying time.

“Everyone is led to believe that there is a tonne of biofuels that will save the world just around the corner, and why go to all this dreadful trouble of [having] to do something else like emissions trading and produce more fuel-efficient aircraft,” he said.

“So a lot of it seems to be about that, and that gets up my nose, it’s fair enough to say.”


More efficient engines, aircraft and air traffic management can lower aviation fuel consumption and reduce carbon emissions, Randy TinsethBoeing’s vice president for marketing, said in Brussels on 6 July. But over the long run, “We have to have biofuels to achieve reductions.”

Following a pan-American flight using a streamlined air traffic management system and on board aircraft partly powered by biofuels, Airbus President Frabrice Brégier said: “To make this a day-to-day commercial reality, it requires now a political will to foster incentives to scale up the use of sustainable biofuels and accelerate modernisation of the air-traffic control management system. We need a clear endorsement by governments and all aviation stakeholders to venture beyond today’s limitations.”

Timothy Spence

European Union

International organisations

Industry and trade associations

Business and industry






Exclusive: EU to limit use of crop-based biofuels – draft law


Sep 10, 2012

(Reuters) – The European Union will impose a limit on the use of crop-based biofuels over fears they are less climate-friendly than initially thought and compete with food production, draft EU legislation seen by Reuters showed.

The draft rules, which will need the approval of EU governments and lawmakers, represent a major shift in Europe’s much-criticized biofuel policy and a tacit admission by policymakers that the EU’s 2020 biofuel target was flawed from the outset.

The plans also include a promise to end all public subsidies for crop-based biofuels after the current legislation expires in 2020, effectively ensuring the decline of a European sector now estimated to be worth 17 billion euros ($21.7 billion) a year.

“The (European) Commission is of the view that in the period after 2020, biofuels should only be subsidized if they lead to substantial greenhouse gas savings… and are not produced from crops used for food and feed,” the draft said.

A Commission spokeswoman said the EU executive would not comment on the details of leaked proposals.

The policy u-turn comes after EU scientific studies cast doubt on the emissions savings from by crop-based fuels, and following a poor harvest in key grain growing regions that pushed up prices and revived fears of food shortages.

Under the proposals, the use of biofuels made from crops such as rapeseed and wheat would be limited to 5 percent of total energy consumption in the EU transport sector in 2020.

Crop-based fuel consumption currently accounts for about 4.5 percent of total EU transport fuel demand, according to the latest national figures for 2011, ensuring that there will be little room to increase current production volumes.

Such a limit will throw into doubt the EU’s binding target to source 10 percent of road transport fuels from renewable sources by the end of the decade, the vast majority of which was expected to come from crop-based biofuels.

In an attempt to make up the shortfall, the European Commission wants to increase the share of advanced non-land using biofuels made from household waste and algae in the EU’s 10 percent target.

“It is appropriate to encourage greater production of such advanced biofuels as these are currently not commercially available in large quantities, in part due to competition for public subsidies with now established food crop based biofuels,” the draft legislation said.

The Commission has proposed that the use of such advanced fuels should be quadruple-counted within the EU’s 10 percent target, in an attempt to at least meet it on paper.

But with commercial production volumes expected to remain low up to 2020, it is doubtful whether the goal can be met.


The proposals are contained in long-awaited EU plans to address the indirect land use change (ILUC) impact of biofuels, a subject that has split officials, biofuel producers and scientists, delaying legislative proposal for almost two years.

ILUC is a theory that states that by diverting food crops into fuel tanks, biofuel production increases overall global demand for agricultural land. If farmers meet that extra demand by cutting down rainforest and draining peatland, it results in millions of tonnes of additional carbon emissions.

The draft law includes new ILUC emissions values for the three major crop types used to produce biofuels: cereals, sugars and oilseeds. These values must be included when calculating emissions savings from biofuels under an EU fuel quality law designed to encourage fuel suppliers to cut emissions from road transport fuels by 6 percent by 2020.

While low values for ethanol made from cereals and sugars are expected to have little market impact, a much higher value for oilseeds is likely to exclude most biodiesel made from rapeseed, soybeans and palm oil from counting towards the fuel suppliers’ targets.

The Commission says its proposal will protect existing investments until 2020, but biodiesel producers fear that by removing any incentive for fuel companies to use biodiesel, it will put the future of the entire sector in doubt.

“Three years after the EU made biofuels a central plank of its policy to promote renewable energies in transport, the Commission’s current proposal threatens an industry that arose as a response to its policies, supports 50,000 jobs and would have provided the next generation of biofuel technologies,” said Jean-Philippe Puig, CEO of Sofiproteol, which owns the EU’s largest biodiesel producer.

Environmental campaigners welcomed the proposal to limit the use of crop-based fuels, but said the plans should have gone further.

“The good news is that this proposal, if adopted, would stop further expansion of current types of unsustainable biofuels, which is an important step. But the bad news is that it fails to do anything about the current volumes of these fuels,” said Nusa Urbancic, clean fuels campaigner for green transport lobby T&E.

If confirmed, the rules are expected to boost European consumption of ethanol, which currently accounts for just over 20 percent of the EU biofuel market, compared with biodiesel’s 78 percent share.

But with diesel cars accounting for about 60 percent of Europe’s fleet and rising, it is unlikely that increased ethanol consumption will be able to completely offset the likely decline in biodiesel consumption.

The International Council on Clean Transportation has predicted that any emissions savings from the EU’s biofuel policy are likely to come from ethanol, while crop-based biodiesel has a worse carbon footprint than normal diesel. ($1 = 0.7821 euros)

(Editing by Rex Merrifield and James Jukwey)