Publication - Aviation biofuels, vegetable oil and land use change

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Aviation biofuels, vegetable oil and land use change

Dr. Chris Malins
Published in
October 2019
Key findings from the report:

The increased demand for palm oil and soy to meet the aspirational targets outlined by ICAO could drive more than 3 million hectares of tropical forest loss (an area equal to the size of Belgium) and 5 gigatons of land use change CO2 emissions, unless measures are taken to avoid the targets being met using the most readily available aviation biofuel technology and feedstocks.

  • The aviation industry has set an aspirational goal to reduce its CO2 emissions by 50 percent in 2050 (compared to 2005), without limiting growth. Central to this vision is a near complete shift from conventional jet fuel to alternative aviation fuels. Near total replacement of fossil fuel would be needed to meet the 50 percent CO2 reduction target because overall aviation fuel consumption is projected to more than double over the same period, and because in general alternative fuels still have some associated direct CO2 emissions (they are not fully carbon neutral).

  • A number of technologies are available to produce aviation biofuels, or even to produce aviation fuels from electricity, but the only one of these technologies currently operating at a commercial scale is the ‘HEFA’ (Hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids) process to produce jet fuel (and on-road fuels as co-products) from vegetable oils and animal fats. Based on near-term estimates of production costs, HEFA fuel looks more economically viable than any of the alternatives.

  • The cheapest and most readily available feedstocks for HEFA jet fuel are palm oil and soy oil, which are closely linked to tropical deforestation. Unless alternative aviation fuel policies actively support more sustainable options, it is likely that meeting the aviation industry’s aspirations to reduce emissions would lead to a large additional demand for soy and palm oils.

  • Analysis of aspirational targets outlined by ICAO shows that if HEFA production were to expand to 2030 in line with a goal of total replacement of fossil jet fuel by 2050, this would lead to a demand in 2030 of 35 million tonnes of palm oil, 3.5 million tonnes of palm oil by-products (PFAD), and 35 million tonnes of soy oil. For comparison, the current global annual production of palm oil globally is around 70 million tonnes.

  • While ICAO’s proposed use of alternative aviation fuels is meant to reduce emissions, it risks inducing massive emissions from extensive destruction of tropical forests and in addition lead to the loss of biodiversity and threatening the rights and livelihoods of forest-dependent peoples.