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Can biofuel decarbonise aviation?

What part will the aviation sector play in the economy-wide decarbonisation that we’ll need to see in the coming decades? It’s a question taken on by the Energy Transitions Commission, an initiative chaired by Adair Turner, former Chair of the Committee on Climate Change and of the Financial Services Authority, and founded on a belief that “economic growth and climate action can be achieved together”. The Commission has published a series of consultation papers considering how to tackle the climate challenge posed by “hard to abate” sectors. The Commission’s aviation paper argues strongly that given likely growth in aviation demand, and the limited role of electric aircraft (particularly in the context of increasing demand for long haul travel), the big hope for the sector lies in biofuel or other alternative fuels.

AEF’s response to the consultation strongly supports the ETC’s call for ambitious, in-sector action on aviation emissions. We argue, however that:

  • The scale of the challenge should not be underestimated.
  • There are significant barriers – political, economic and environmental – to increasing the uptake of aviation biofuel. Demand from other sectors already covered by climate policy is likely to remain high, supply of sustainable biofuel will be limited, and in order to achieve net zero emissions in future, there could well be a strong case for reserving biomass for use with carbon capture and storage (which could double the environmental benefit).
  • The need to address non-CO2 emissions from planes shouldn’t be forgotten, given that the associated climate impacts will remain even with biofuels.
  • Governments need to clarify how aviation emissions will be included in climate change strategies and targets. In addition to international agreements, governments should, at least in the interim, set out domestic carbon policy for aviation, reinforcing the ‘bottom up’ approach of the Paris Agreement. A biofuel mandate for aviation shouldn’t be introduced in the absence of this wider climate framing.

For AEF’s full response, click here.

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