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Biofuels No Answer to Aviation Emissions

12th March, 2007

There is growing worldwide interest in the use of ‘biofuels’ – fuels made from plant materials. The reason for the interest is that they can be a replacement for fossil fuels but, unlike fossils fuels, there is no net emission of carbon when they are burnt. In theory!

The reason why there are theoretically no emissions is that when the plants grow, they remove carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) from the air and when the biofuel is burnt, it releases the same amount of carbon back into the air. So there is no net emission of carbon – ie is ‘carbon neutral’. In reality, however, biofuels are nowhere near carbon neutral. Large amounts of energy are needed to grow the crops, transport them, process them to make fuel, and transport the biofuel, for example.  Some calculations, admittedly pessimistic, show that biofuels may in fact produce 90% of the emissions of fossil fuel when the whole life cycle is evaluated.

The other equally disastrous shortcoming of biodfuels is the land they use. To substitute for all the fossil fuel in the UK, we would need an area bigger than the UK to grow the plants. This might be possible for the UK and other rich countries, but it is morally repugnant to take over land that is desperately needed for food in poor countries. Annie Sugrue, an African campaigner, said: “We are taking away food from poor people’s tables and putting it into rich people’s cars”. The same could be said for aircraft.

Destroying natural habitats to plant biofuels is an equally appalling prospect. This will destroy the world’s wildlife – animals such as the orang-utang are threatened with extinction due to destruction of their rainforest. Furthermore, destruction of natural habitats such as rainforest leads to massive emissions of carbon, negating the whole point of the exercise.

Biofuels are being cited by some as a saviour which will allow the aviation industry to keep growing while addressing climate change. The above shows this is not so. Indeed, the enthusiasm for biofuels can be regarded as no more than an excuse to prevaricate and not take effective measures on climate change.

The group (of which organisations like the Orangutan Foundation, Ape Alliance, and Born Free are members) has asked people to write to the EU to ask that biofuel targets are not made mandatory within the EU. Biofuelwatch website