Flying on palm oil: Why ICAO’s ‘green fuel’ plan spells climate disaster

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Palm oil is the preferred feedstock for HVO biofuels because it is the cheapest type of vegetable oil. And airlines are highly sensitive to fuel costs. [Bernard DUPONT / Flickr]

Plans to rapidly scale up the use of biofuels in air transport inevitably mean increasing reliance on Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO), most of which currently contain palm oil, the worst polluting biofuel, warns Almuth Ernsting.

Almuth Ernsting is co-director of Biofuelwatch, a non-governmental organisation based in the UK and the US.

This week, delegates from the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) – the United Nations agency responsible for administering aviation regulations – gather in Mexico City for a high-level Conference.

Up for discussion will be a proposal that they claim will reduce carbon emissions from aviation despite high levels of growth in air travel. If this seems too good to be true, it’s because it is.

The proposal that delegates will be debating at the conference calls on member states to put subsidies and other support measures in place to rapidly scale up the use of biofuels in planes, culminating in 50% of jet fuel to come from biofuels by 2050.

This proposal is meeting intense opposition: 95 NGOs and other networks condemned them in an Open Letter, and 170,000 people called on ICAO to reject them in an online petition.

As the Open Letter and petition make clear, the large-scale use of biofuels inevitably means relying on palm oil. This is hugely problematic in various ways.

These problems are highlighted in a new report by Biofuelwatch, which shows the serious technical obstacles to producing commercial quantities of aviation biofuels from any feedstock other than vegetable oils and animal fats.

Biofuels for planes would rely on Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO), a type of biofuel already produced for cars and trucks. HVO production is expanding at more than ten times the rate of biofuels overall. Most HVO contains palm oil, and two large new HVO refineries that will rely on palm oil are due to open in Europe within the next 18 months[1].

There are two reasons why palm oil is the preferred feedstock for HVO biofuels: Firstly, it is the cheapest type of vegetable oil, apart from waste vegetable oil which, like animal fat residues, is only available in limited supplies for which there is already much competition. Secondly, the actual HVO refining is cheaper for palm oil than for rapeseed or soybean oil and most other plant oils.

At present, HVO fuels are far too expensive to be adopted by airlines, except in very small quantities. So far, there is just one refinery in the world – operated by AltAir in California – which regularly produces small amounts of aviation biofuels, but even that relies on over 90% on selling HVO diesel for road transport.

Yet far cheaper HVO fuels could soon be available for planes: Boeing and Neste, the world’s biggest HVO producer, have asked the international standards agency to permit up to 15% blends of HVO diesel, which costs much less to produce than the HVO jet fuel that can already be used. 15% of current global jet fuel use translates to 43.3 million tonnes. This is equivalent to around 3 times the volume of the EU’s entire biofuel market.

Airlines are highly sensitive to fuel costs and unlikely to start using large quantities of biofuels unless prices come down to around those of fossil fuels.

Even HVO diesel costs more than petroleum-based kerosene, so direct or indirect subsidies would still be essential – as well as using HVO from the cheapest feedstock, i.e. palm oil, beyond the small amounts of waste products available. There are industry calls for global subsidies, through ICAO, as well as calls for member states to extend existing biofuel subsidies to aviation.

Whether or not planes will in the future fly with palm oil in their tanks will thus depend on policy decisions made by ICAO and its members, including the EU. In April this year, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for an end to palm oil use for biofuels. Support for aviation biofuels would be incompatible with this goal.

Palm oil for planes would be bad news for tropical forests and peatlands, for communities facing land-grabbing and human rights abuses, and for the climate.

But this is no excuse for business as usual: greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are rising faster than those from any other sector. No alternatives to flying planes with liquid fuels are on the horizon, and efficiency improvements, however important, cannot compensate for the steep increase in air travel.

Keeping global warming to within 1.5oC or even 2oC degrees – as the Paris Agreement demands – relies on aviation growth being stopped and reversed. Instead of biofuels, we need an end to subsidies – including tax breaks – for aviation as well as policies which support alternatives, such as affordable rail travel.

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[1] Eni is converting an oil refinery in Sicily to HVO production from palm oil, and Total is converting one in La Mède, France, which will use at least 550,000 tonnes of palm oil and up to 100,000 tonnes of Used Cooking Oil.