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BA biofuel plan needs taking with a pinch of salt

19th February, 2010

British Airways is planning to boost its fuel supplies with a new biofuel project in London, the company announced this week. A new industrial plant in east London, developed in collaboration with Solena group will, BA hopes, turn a mixture of domestic, agricultural, forestry and industrial waste into a biogas that will then be converted into synthentic kerosene using the Fischer Tropsch process. By 2014 the facility could, say BA, be converting 500,000 tonnes of waste a year into 16 million gallons of bio jet fuel.

AEF welcomes steps taken by the aviation industry to tackle the problem of aviation emissions, which are set to resume growth as soon as the industry recovers from the recent recession. And we recognise the potential advantages of using biomass from waste as opposed to using biofuel crops growth on agricultural land, where they often compete with food production in developing countries.

But this proposal needs to be seen in perspective. If the plant gains planning permission it will, on BA’s own figures, be able to generate only 1% of the airline’s annual fuel needs. And the reduction in greenhouse gases will be lower still. Given the environmental impacts of producing biofuel (in this case taking some account of the impacts of manufacturing paper, plastics and other components of waste), and of transporting both raw materials and the final product, the government’s climate advisors argue that biofuel probably achieves only a 50% reduction in ‘lifecycle’ greenhouse gas emissions. Under this assumption, the new biofuels plant would reduce BA’s emissions by around 0.5% per year. By contrast, aviation emissions have historically grown at around 4% per year.

BA hopes that the plant will provide a model to be replicated elsewhere, though it is unclear whether domestic waste will provide a reliable fuel source for aircraft in future. Improved recycling facilities and campaigns to reduce waste may reduce volume heading for landfill and provide better environmental benefits than the conversion of waste to biogas. In addition, other sectors may be keen to capitalise on the opportunity to source fuel from wastes, not least because biofuels are exempt from the EU emissions trading system – a scheme that requires polluters to pay for emissions above a certain level, and will include airlines from 2012.

The aviation industry has recently, however, found it difficult to source sufficient biofuels even to conduct trials. According to Flight International (26th Jan – 1st Feb 2010), Mexico’s Interjet has had to shelve plans for Latin America’s first biofuels demonstration flight after bring unable to secure enough salicornia – an algae indigenous to northern Mexico – to support the trial. Meanwhile the Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, David Kennedy, last week told a business travel conference that biofuels would not be a “silver bullet” for delivering carbon cuts. The committee believes that even by 2050 only 10% of the industry’s fuel needs will come from biofuel – the level currently planned for by BA.