Aviation biofuels: A pie in the sky?

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Airlines have committed to ramping up their use of biofuels in the belief that they can contribute to achieving the sector's pledges on carbon-neutral growth. For 2050, the EU foresees 40% use of "sustainable low carbon fuels" in aviation.

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Overview

In a bid to reduce its dependency on imported oil and tackle global warming, the EU has committed to raising the share of fuels from renewable sources in transport to 10% by 2020 – including biofuels, hydrogen and green electricity.

For the growing aviation industry, the switch to plant-based fuel is seen as not only environmentally smart, but a sensible financial move in an era or rising conventional fuel prices and worries about supply security.

Biofuel use in passenger aircraft is still a novelty, and 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 motor vehicles.

The industry contends that sustainable fuels will reduce emissions even as passenger traffic grows. The airline sector has committed to meet 10% of its overall fuel consumption with biofuels by 2017 – though the goal is ambitious given that it is to account for just 1% by 2015...

Meanwhile, more doubts are being raised about the environmental benefits of biofuels.

The United Nations Environment Programme has warned 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.”

European conservation groups say the EU and European governments should wait to embrace aviation biofuels until there is proof of their environmental benefits.

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