Large Carbon Footprint and Various Side Effects

Agrofuels in Aviation Remain Problematic

The climate mitigation targets for the aviation sector defined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) are: CO2-neutral growth of aviation by 2020 and a 50 percent reduction of net CO2 emissions by 2050 (as compared to the base year 2005). In order to achieve this, the aviation sector also hopes for the development of alternative fuels for aircraft. The contribution of agrofuels to climate mitigation and the expected benefits have been and remain highly contested. In addition, there are currently unresolved technological challenges as well as problematic consequences in terms of ecological and development impacts. In many cases, the yields are still rather poor.

The major part of the alternative fuels currently used is from crop plants. In aviation, mainly oil plants, especially oil palms, jatropha, and camelina (a rapeseed variety) are of importance. Another alternative is agrofuels from residual materials such as straw, wood, or effluent sludge. Crop biomass, including different types of grass or fast-growing varieties of trees, can also be used to produce fuels. Recently, the aviation sector has also built up hopes for the production of kerosene from micro algae.

Climate impact and ecological footprint

In the combustion of agrokerosene, the same amount of CO2 is being emitted as from fossil kerosene. The decisive difference is that energy plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while they grow. However, the CO2 balance is not at all neutral. Throughout the life cycle, CO2 is being emitted, for example in production, processing, and transport.

Indirect land use changes (ILUC) also cause considerable negative impacts, for example, when primeval forest and other ecosystems worth protecting are converted into agricultural areas, while former agricultural land is now used for the production of energy plants.

Human rights and social impact

Various case studies from Asia, Africa, and Latin America prove that in the production of agrofuel crops, land-use conflicts frequently occur, even leading to the displacement of local people, water shortages, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and competition with food production.

Other negative impacts include the displacement of local and indigenous people from their land and the consequences, such as hunger and poverty, which are not acceptable both in terms of human rights and social impacts. Unclear land ownership, poor governance in many agrofuels producing countries, but also the promotion policies for agro-diesel by the European Union fuel these conflicts.

Another important aspect is the working conditions of local people which are partly neither in accordance with international standards nor subject to national legislation. Various reports by people affected indicate, for example, adverse effects on health from pesticides and fertiliser. Due to the increase in agrofuels production, food prices have risen in many regions, which is not acceptable given the fact that 842 million people worldwide suffer from hunger. Small bottlenecks in food supply due to rising prices may have enormous impacts on people in regions with a tight food situation. Demand forecasts indicate a drastic increase in future land requirements, stirring conflicts over fertile land.

Agrofuels and European legislation

The European Union wants to achieve its mitigation target most importantly by increasing bio energy production. The Renewables Directive (RED) obliges states to ensure a share of at least ten percent by 2020 for all modes of transport. The EU furthermore stipulates that the CO2 emissions caused by agrodiesel must be 35 percent below those of fossil fuels, and from 2017 onwards 50 percent below.

The RED formulates sustainability standards for agrofuels which will be credited towards the EU targets. It differentiates between binding requirements (for example, greenhouse gas footprint) and those which only require reporting. More demanding criteria and standards would have to take into account human rights, socio-economic and additional ecological aspects and be embedded in laws and processes. According to RED, however, this is not yet a binding requirement and only covered by reporting requirements. Only a legally binding requirement could ensure that feedstock for alternative fuels can be made available in a conflict-free manner.

Aviation has so far remained exempt from the implementation of the quota targets mentioned above. But it may be credited towards the RED targets, provided that the binding sustainability criteria are fulfilled and proven by certification.

Suggestions for improvement of the Renewables Directive

The fields of conflict described prove that many of the negative impacts cannot be captured by sustainability certification. In response to the objections by various environment and development organisations, the European Commission presented a draft amendment for the RED which is meant to limit the share of fuels that use food crops as feedstock to five percent of the overall target. The EU also agreed to include a compulsory ILUC factor into the greenhouse gas footprint from 2020. A ten percent blend of alternative aviation fuels by 2025, as it is demanded, for example, by the "Aviation Initiative for Renewable Energy in Germany" (aireg), is ecologically and socially highly questionable.

Annegret Zimmermann works with Bread for the World as consultant on sustainable tourism.…

(TW 74, March 2014)