Biofuels won’t decarbonise aviation – ICCT

A new study into the potential of biofuels to reduce aviation’s environmental impact has said that even advanced biofuels will not decarbonise aviation. The findings from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) come just four months after the EU transport commissioner Violeta Bulc said biofuels were the ‘best choice’ to start decarbonising air transport. The findings also support what T&E and four other NGOs told Bulc in January.

aviation emmission biofuel

At its 2013 general assembly, the International Civil Aviation Organisation agreed to ‘a medium term aspirational goal’ of carbon-neutral growth for the aviation sector from 2020. Last June, the Commission’s Strategy for Low-emission Mobility talked about an important role for ‘advanced biofuels’ (biofuels made from crops that were not competing for use as food) in decarbonising aviation, and in an interview with Politico in November, Bulc said advanced biofuels were the ‘best choice’ for starting the decarbonisation process.

A group of five NGOs, including T&E, responded to Bulc’s statement, highlighting that some biofuels are worse for the climate than conventional kerosene, and Europe’s aviation policy should focus on ‘far more meaningful measures that will have an impact’, including restoring the EU emissions trading system for all international flights, not just those within Europe.

Now the ICCT, the US-based research body that played a central role in exposing the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal, has backed up the NGOs’ position. In a study published on 29 March, it investigated the likely decarbonising effect of ‘alternative jet fuel’ (AJF) made from various biomass sources. It found that ‘the available quantities and types of feedstocks for AJF suggest that fuel-switching alone is unlikely to meet ICAO’s goal of carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onward’, let alone IATA’s goal of reducing 2005 net emissions by 50% by 2050. It added: ‘Although estimated demand for jet fuel amounts to 24–37 EJ in 2050, assessments show that the absolute maximum amount of lignocellulosic (advanced) biofuel that could be available for the aviation sector is around 4 EJ in 2050.’

T&E’s transport and energy analyst Carlos Calvo Ambel said: ‘The ICCT’s in-depth scientific analysis matches exactly what NGOs told the commissioner in January – that biofuels will not decarbonise aviation. The Commission should focus on solutions that are proven to reduce emissions. Abolishing fossil fuel subsidies for kerosene, currently taxed in Europe at zero euros per litre, and reforming outdated and inefficient traffic control would be a start. But in the long run, political courage is needed to tackle aviation demand.’