Feeding aircraft while people go hungry

As the squeeze on heavy users of fossil fuels to be seen to be cleaning up their act intensifies, there is now a flurry of activity especially from the aviation sector behind promoting “renewable” fuels such as biofuels and synthetic fuels. There are, however, some pretty major downsides, as I set out in the Irish Examiner in March.

IT IS SAID that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. Few problems are more complex than decarbonising the aviation industry, and the simplest solutions now being touted include turn vast swathes of farmland into fuel to feed its voracious appetite for energy.

A report published earlier this week by Aircraft Leasing Ireland claimed that the use of biofuels and synthetic fuels could reduce emissions by up to 90% compared with aviation kerosene.

Ireland, the report’s authors argue, is well placed to develop and produce what it terms sustainable aviation fuel, thanks to our expanding renewable energy sector, as well as the use of residues from agriculture and forestry. It is looking for government support, in other words, subsidies, to bring these claimed new energy source to fruition.

Food production in Europe and beyond is already being acutely stressed by climate-driven extreme weather events, as well as the ongoing war in Ukraine. Is this really a good time to take millions of hectares out of food production, so putting upward pressure on food prices for millions while feeding aircraft instead?

An area of land in Europe larger than the island of Ireland is already exclusively dedicated to producing biofuels, according to the Brussels-based NGO, Transport & Environment (T&E). This is mostly to meet the EU’s “lower carbon” E10 mandate (this means 10% of a given fuel is biofuel).

This regulation is ostensibly to aid in decarbonising motor transport, but many argue that with the advent of electric vehicles, it is instead a pointless diversion of both land and resources to simply extend the dominance of the internal combustion engine.

Analysis by T&E found the 9.6 million hectares of agricultural land in Europe now used to grow biofuels is 40 times more than the mere 250,000 hectares that solar panels would require to provide the same amount of energy if it were instead powering electric vehicles.

“Crop biofuels are probably the dumbest thing ever promoted in the name of climate”, commented Maik Marahrens, biofuels specialist at T&E. “Biofuels are a failed experiment. To continue to burn food as fuel while we face a growing global food crisis is borderline criminal”, he added.

According to Department of Transport data for 2022, around 307 million litres of what it calls “renewable fuel” was placed on the market. Transport minister, Eamon Ryan recently announced that Ireland would move from E5 petrol to E10, meaning a doubling of the biofuel element of every litre of petrol sold in Ireland. This comes into effect, appropriately enough on April Fools Day.

Ryan described the move to E10 as “one of several transport measures to achieve a 51% reduction in transport emissions by 2030”. While upping the percentage of biofuel in a litre of petrol may effect a 5% cut in emissions, there is no acknowledgement in the Department of Transport’s statement as to the knock-on effects of increased biofuel usage.

While converting croplands to fuel cars may offer some slight reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, these gains are likely to be wiped out by the double whammy on food security and biodiversity of the land involved.

This of course is before considering the impact of oxymoronically titled “sustainable aviation fuels” are taken into account. Aviation currently contributes around a billion tonnes of CO2 a year. The UK’s Royal Society last month published a report investigating the resource requirements and environmental impacts of so-called net zero aviation fuels. Its key conclusion is that there is simply no sustainable alternative to jet fuel that could be deployed to match the vast amount of flying now undertaken.

Powering the UK’s current aviation demand with biofuels, including “energy crops” such as rapeseed, miscanthus and poplar, would require around half the UK’s entire agricultural land area. Would people really rather fly than eat?

An alternate option is to power aircraft in future with green hydrogen, but this is massively energy-intensive. The report found that even if the formidable hurdles involved in modifying aircraft to run on hydrogen could be overcome, it would use twice to three and a half times the UK’s entire renewable energy’s 2020 output.

There is in fact a simple answer to these complex technological conundrums, and the Royal Society Report hinted as much when it noted that “reducing the amount of air travel” would ease all these pressures simultaneously.

Unsurprisingly, the Irish aviation industry report this week made no reference to demand reduction or effective pricing of CO2 as solutions, nor did it seriously address the crucial issue of converting valuable farmland to fuel aircraft.

Ironically, if the land in the EU currently given over to growing biofuels were instead simply allowed to re-wild, the T&E study found it would absorb more than twice the CO2 that biofuels claim to save, as well as providing a vital lifeline to biodiversity and climate protection. Now there’s an idea that could really fly.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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One Response to Feeding aircraft while people go hungry

  1. Benen says:

    Agree John Less flying the solution
    i don’t need to fly to New York to buy a hoodie. just head down to charity shop and get a second hand one.

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