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Aviation Industry’s Uptake of Biofuels Could Spur Mass Deforestation, Critics Say

Image credit: Jordan Sanchez

The global airline industry is flying high — according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the sector is forecasted to make a net profit of $29.8 billion in 2017 and air passengers are expected to double over the next 20 years. But coupled with the industry’s success are unprecedented levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, sector-wide emissions in the European Economic Area (EEA) amounted to 61 million tons of CO2, an increase of 7.9 percent over 2015’s 57 million tons. Globally, emissions from aviation are expected to increase fourfold by 2050.

It comes as no surprise then that aviation is increasingly coming under pressure to find new ways to drive down emissions. United and JetBlue have been leading the way, becoming the first two airlines to sign a renewable jet fuel agreement and innovating to both improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has now proposed a roadmap to carbon-neutral growth for the industry as a whole by 2020, one built upon the promise of biofuels.

If approved, ICAO’s Vision on Aviation Alternative Fuels plans to deliver five megatons of biofuels per year by 2025 and 285 megatons per year by 2050 — half of total demand for international aviation fuel. It sounds good on paper and, so far, has the backing of Brazil and Indonesia, but the proposal would require a three-fold increase in biofuel production — a concept that has environmental groups up in arms.

Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO) jet fuel, which can be used in up to 50 percent blends, has been identified as the most plausible alternative fuel source. As the most inexpensive type of vegetable oil, palm oil is the cheapest to refine to HVO. Critics suggest that any significant adoption of aviation biofuels would require large-scale palm oil use, a feedstock that is constantly coming under fire for driving deforestation. For ICAO to meet its target, environmental organization Biofuelwatch estimates that 82.3 million hectares of land would be required if relying on palm oil-based HVO alone.

“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,” said Carlos Calvo Ambel, spokesman for Transport and Environment. “The European experience has been that biofuels targets sucked in palm oil exports whose emissions were far greater than those of fossil fuels.”

Nearly 100 environmental groups — including Friends of the Earth, Oxfam International and Transport and Environment Europe — have called on ICAO member states to put the proposal to rest and encourage the organization to instead “take urgent measures to reduce the climate impacts of aviation by stemming and ultimately reversing its growth.” Additionally, over 182,000 people have signed a petition calling for ICAO to abandon the plan.

Environmental groups aren’t the only ones to question the pitch — the EU has called for stronger sustainability criteria and China has reservations about its feasibility, sentiments that were shared by Bioefuelswatch spokeswoman Almuth Ernsting, who said that the plan’s goal is “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.” What’s more, the European Parliament approved a resolution earlier this year to address the problem of unsustainable palm oil production, one that introduces a single certification scheme for palm oil entering the EU and phases out the use of vegetable oils that drive deforestation.

For now, the fate of the proposal is uncertain, but if passed, it is expected to be formally adopted within two years.


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