February 21, 2013
In the quest for sustainability, the aviation industry is seeking to avoid unintended consequences—especially the unintended consequences of employing biofuels on a large scale. One kind of unintended consequence is known as ILUC, or “indirect land-use change”. When biofuels are produced on existing agricultural land, the demand for food and feed crops remains, and may lead to someone producing more food and feed somewhere else. This can imply land use change (by changing e.g. forest into agricultural land), which implies that a substantial amount of CO2 emissions are released into the atmosphere.
On 20 February, the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee of the European Parliament held a workshop to address the ILUC effects of sustainable biofuels. The workshop addressed a European Commission proposal to transition from “first-generation” biofuels (sourced from foodstocks like corn and soybeans) to “second-generation” fuels (which are not sourced from edible crops). This proposal would set a 5 percent limit on the proportion of biofuels that can be sourced from feedstocks, end subsidies for first-generation biofuels by 2020, impose a greenhouse-gas-saving requirement of 60 percent for biofuels production processes starting next year, and create new values for ILUC effects from major crop groups. EU member states’ energy ministers are expected to discuss the proposal on 22 February.
The aviation industry is committed to developing and employing sustainable, second-generation biofuels. These fuels have the potential to reduce aviation’s worldwide carbon footprint, diversify the industry’s sources of fuel, protect firms and consumers from the high cost volatility associated with fossil fuels, and contribute to the development of green industry. But as the aviation industry works to promote the development of these biofuels, it is taking great care to make sure they are environmentally sustainable:
- Aviation biofuels are made from crops that do not compete with existing foodstocks. Next-gen aviation biofuels may be made from jatropha (an inedible seed plant rich in lipid oil), camelina (a rotation crop also rich in oil), algae, and other salt water grasses and plants. They do not compete with crucial food crops like corn and soybeans.
- Aviation biofuel crops are grown in agriculturally marginal areas. Jatropha thrives in arid conditions not otherwise suitable for foodstock farming. Likewise, algae can be cultivated in polluted and saline water where foodstocks are not found. Camelina is grown in rotation with wheat and other cereals, allowing for healthier soil but not displacing any existing land use. Cultivating potential aviation biofuel crops neither displaces existing agricultural uses nor incentivizes farmers to destroy forested areas.
- Aviation biofuel crops allow for water conservation. Algae and halophytes can be grown in existing marine settings, and jatropha does not require much water for cultivation. Thus, current and future aviation biofuel crops will not negatively impact world water supplies.
As airlines and aerospace firms continue to develop and test second-generation biofuels, they remain committed to long-term environmental sustainability and encourage policy support only for the development and use of truly sustainable biofuels.