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Aviation biofuels and the renewable transport fuels obligation

Sustainable fuels are viewed, particularly by the aviation industry, as an integral component in the sector’s ‘basket of measures’ towards managing its growth in CO2 emissions. Emissions from the aviation industry globally are expected to triple out to 2050 without additional action while the global aviation industry has a self-imposed target of cutting net emissions in half by 2050 compared to 2005 levels, which it argues could be achieved through technology, operational improvements and alternative fuels.

Any emissions benefit from biofuels is proportional to their capacity to offset, at the production stage, the emissions produced when they are combusted. In the case of crop-based biofuel, for example, this would be through the absorption of CO2 during plant growth; in the case of fuel produced from waste biomass the benefit would arise from preventing the release of methane from waste sent to landfill. The subsequent burning of biofuel by aircraft emits the same amount of carbon dioxide, and has the same additional climatic impacts (predominantly from NOx emitted in the upper atmosphere and from contrails), as conventional aviation fossil fuels. Therefore, biofuel use can offer only a limited offset for aviation’s impact on climate change.

The UK coalition Sustainable Aviation has argued in its CO2 roadmap that biofuels could make up 40% of aviation fuel in 2050 and contribute to a 24% reduction in emissions, if the fuel provided a 60% improvement in lifecycle emissions (although this estimate doesn’t account for aviation’s non-CO2 impacts). The Committee on Climate Change meanwhile estimated in 2009 that alternative fuels would contribute only 10% of total aviation fuel in 2050 under a likely scenario, reducing CO2 emissions by 5% (assuming a 50% improvement in lifecycle emissions). The Department for Transport predicted in its 2013 forecast that alternative fuels would account for just 2.5% of aviation’s total fuel in 2050, which the Airports Commission argued could be increased to 5.6% through Government intervention.

Sustainable Aviation produced a Sustainable Fuels roadmap at the end of 2014 with recommendations about how to improve uptake of aviation alternative fuels through:

  • allowing aviation fuel producers to claim Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation certificates in line with road transport fuels;
  • encouraging investment in aviation biofuels; and
  • prioritising research and development into sustainable aviation fuels

The Government recently confirmed that it would be consulting on possible changes to the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) this year and could allow producers of aviation biofuel to benefit from the scheme.

AEF’s new briefing considers aviation biofuel, and the questions which need answering in order to understand the impact that an extension of the renewable fuels obligation to aviation could have. While we are currently open-minded about possible aviation access to certificates under the RTFO, we believe it remains critical not to overplay the likely role of biofuel in solving the aviation emissions challenge. Since aviation already benefits from paying neither fuel tax nor VAT we would be very cautious about supporting any allocation of public money to help industry pay its climate costs.


Download: AEF Briefing: Aviation biofuels and the renewable transport fuels obligation

Image creditRudi Riet via Flickr

For more information on this topic, please contact Cait Hewitt 020 3102 1509 / cait@aef.org.uk.

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