[Read the opposing view, “Takeoff for Aviation Biofuels: How, Where, When?” by Jim Lane, editor and publisher of Biofuels Digest.]
– by Almuth Ernsting, Co-Director, Biofuelwatch
On 24th February 2008, pictures of Richard Branson tossing a coconut into the air next to an aircraft at Heathrow were broadcast around the world, as he announced the world’s first biofuel flight. Biofuel, he claimed, would “enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future.”
Environmental NGOs denounced his test flight as a publicity stunt, intended to deflect attention from the fact that aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and most carbon intensive form of transport. As far as Branson and his airline, Virgin Atlantic, were concerned, the flight was indeed no more than a stunt: The “biofuel test flight” burned 95% ordinary kerosene and just 5% biofuels, made from coconut and Brazilian babassu nut oil. Virgin Atlantic has not used any biofuels since that day.
Since then, however, at least 24 other airlines have blended biofuels with kerosene. By September 2015, more than 2,050 such flights had taken off, most by commercial airlines, some by the US and Dutch military and US and Canadian research institutes. This year, KLM has launched a series of 80 passenger flights with biofuel blends, and since March, United Airlines has been using such blends for regular flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco. They aim to expand their use to all their flights out of Los Angeles. Across the aviation industry, biofuel use and investments have moved far beyond what could be considered a mere publicity stunt.
Even if biofuels were carbon neutral – which is far from the case – there is no realistic prospect of them making any significant dent in aviation’s contribution to global warming. Between 2002 and 2012, global jet fuel use increased by one-fifth, to 5.42 million barrels a year (around 695,000 tonnes). Apart from a minor dip during the global financial crisis in 2008-2009, it has been growing year after year. Global biofuel production has reached the equivalent of around 70.8 million tonnes of oil a year, accounting for little more than 2% of the world’s transport fuels. However, as we shall see below,only a small fraction of the biofuels which are being produced annually today could conceivably be upgraded for use in aviation. Nearly the world’s entire biofuel infrastructure is for ethanol and biodiesel, which cannot be used in aircraft.