EU sees ‘strategic advantage’ of biofuels in aviation

Biofuels flight in Brazil [The Boeing Company/ Flickr]

In sectors like aviation where decarbonisation options are limited, there is a strategic advantage in encouraging the use of biofuels, a European Commission official has said.

The aviation sector is dependent on liquid fuels and has few options other than biofuels when it comes to using renewable energies.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has set a target of ramping up biofuels use to 10% of all consumption by 2017, saying they have the potential to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by up to 80%.

The big issue now for the industry is whether they can be deployed on a sufficiently large scale to make a difference to the airline sector’s carbon emissions – without wrecking the environment.

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“By far the biggest problem is the price gap—biofuels are two or three times as expensive as fossil fuels —and this needs to be compensated somehow,” said Henrik Erämetsä, head of aviation regulation at Finnish oil company Neste, who was speaking at a EURACTIV event last week.

“We know that in the on-road sector it has been compensated by mandating the use of biofuels, so basically it’s part of the fuel price,” he explained, suggesting a similar measure could be taken for aviation.

“But aviation is a global, international sector, where a mandate within the European Union, for instance, would distort the global business. So we need to find some other kind of solution,” Erämetsä pointed out.

Not all biofuels are the same

Richard Clarkson, a policy officer at the European Commission’s Aviation Policy Unit, agreed that biofuels have a potentially very important role to play in decarbonising aviation.

But any kind of public support needs to ensure that biofuels “provide genuine greenhouse gas savings and will generally support our sustainability goals”, he insisted.

“We know from 15 years or so the experience of biofuels policy in the EU that not all biofuels are the same,” Clarkson said, admitting that some of them actually result in higher greenhouse gas emissions than their fossil fuel equivalents.

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“We also need to bear in mind that the use of biofuels can have unintended consequences, both adverse and positive. We need to be very mindful in order to avoid some of those adverse consequences. For example, where the use of crops perhaps dries out food prices in areas where there is food insecurity,” the EU official explained.

Referring to biofuels used in aviation, Clarkson pointed out that significant progress has been made over the last 10 years.

“Several pathways have now been certificated, and about 2,500 commercial flights have now taken place using some amount of biofuels,” the EU official said, highlighting that biofuels still represent a small portion of fuels that are used in air transport.

According to Clarkson, the Commission’s proposed revision of the renewable energy directive provides a greater incentive for the use of biofuels in aviation than previously, by weighting them 20% higher than fuels used in other modes.

“The Commission sees that there is a strategic advantage in trying to encourage the use of biofuels in sectors like aviation where there are a fewer number of alternative decarbonisation options,” he said.

“Now, that 20% weighting applies not just to aviation but also to maritime,” he noted.

Combination of factors

For Gesine Meissner, a German MEP from the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, biofuels are only one among many ways of cutting aviation emissions.

She highlighted the Single European Sky initiative, launched in 1999 to improve air traffic management, which has stalled due to disagreement between EU member states – and a high-profile dispute between Spain and the UK over Gibraltar.

“This is something that I’m really fighting for because if aircraft zigzag, of course, it does need a lot more kerosene and it’s not good for the environment at all,” she said.

Another alternative is the use of lighter materials in planes, which results in less kerosene burning, and using electricity for taxiing while aircraft are on the ground.

Regarding biofuels, she said they might be a good alternative for kerosene in the future but weren’t available in sufficient quantities for now.

“We need the soil to create or produce crops and food, but actually we have a lot of crop waste, so to say, or parts of forests that we can really use to produce biofuel,” she pointed out.

“Get out and see what’s happening in the world”

Darrin Morgan, director of sustainable biofuel strategy at Boeing, said biofuels were thought to be the green solution about a decade ago but then became the “worst thing in the world” that would destroy the planet.

“And of course neither of those things was true. And the answer is, well, it depends completely on how you do it and the scale and the technology and the sustainability,” Morgan said.

Despite the political backlash against biofuels, Boeing has persevered in trying to find sustainable alternatives, Morgan said. It is currently negotiating an agreement with China over the air pollution produced by the burning of crop residue.

“The government in China has figured out that they need to do something with a lot of these crop residues besides burning. What they want to do is, among other things, sustainable fuels,” he stated.

“While I know in Brussels biofuels are not sexy anymore, biofuels and the backlash against them… For those of you in Brussels, get out there and see what’s happening in the world,” Morgan said.

The role of certification

Discussion at the EURACTIV event focused mainly on the role of sustainability certification schemes.

“The potential for certification at scale is unlimited,” said Barbara Bramble from the National Wildlife Federation in South Africa. “There is no actual break on it that I can think of. I suppose as one is scaling up the training for the auditors,” she explained.

Certification schemes such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RBS) can audit an individual project and assess the social and labour angle too, she said.

According to Bramble, ramping up production hinges mainly on soil management, including land use, social issues, and conservation.

“You can’t just say that biofuels are good or bad by category—it all depends. So this isn’t a fight against food versus fuel—that’s way too simplistic. This is really about how we use our land. All types of land uses are in competition with all other types of land uses,” she added.

Aviation biofuels: A pie in the sky?

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.

Tobacco potential

Companies across the world have already taken several innovation-driven initiatives to make aviation greener. One of them is biotech company SunChem, which has developed a novel tobacco crop called “Solaris” that makes energy out of tobacco.

The Solaris crop is cultivated by smallholder farmers and is considered an opportunity to grow sustainable bioenergy resources while simultaneously boosting socio-economic growth in rural areas. The project has been certified by the Roundtable for Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) and currently operates in South Africa and Italy.

Sergio Tommasini, SunChem CEO, said that Solaris was coming from tobacco but is nicotine and GMO-free.

“You can use it for the production of a source of protein out of the biomass, so animal feed, and fuel for bioaviation, biofuel in general […] it could be biodiesel or a fraction of jet fuel”, he noted.

In Italy, for instance, Tommasini said that the project helped save 5,000 tobacco growers and there are a number of actors involved throughout the chain, from Boeing Italy to Alitalia and universities.

“If we put all the actors in the chain, the fuel can come out as sustainable,” he emphasised.

In November, the European Commission presented its draft proposal to review the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) for the post-2020 period as part of a Clean Energy Package.

The executive proposed reducing the contribution of conventional biofuels in transport from a maximum of 7% in 2021 to 3.8% in 2030. It also set an obligation to raise the share of other ‘low emissions fuels’ such as renewable electricity and advanced biofuels in transport to 6.8%.

The Commission’s change of heart on conventional or first generation biofuels has sparked heated discussions in Brussels.

Commission under fire over post-2020 biofuels targets

The European Commission came under heavy criticism yesterday (30 November) after proposing to phase-out conventional biofuels by 2030.


European Commission


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