The federal government is on the hunt for a company that can help it to produce a roadmap to develop a national aviation biofuel industry, a move in line with a decision by the UN aviation body to step up its decarbonization efforts. But environmental campaigners are worried that reliance on some types of biofuels could threaten food security and lead to deforestation.
Last week, Natural Resources Canada issued a procurement document seeking a firm to explore the amount of jet biofuel that would be needed to support the national airline industry, as well as investigate the state of play with emerging clean aviation technologies.
Ottawa is most hopeful about use of forest residues—scrap from existing forest practices, and even recycled cooking oil—as these sources would not compete for arable land with food production and should not lead to deforestation. Comparatively, first-generation biofuels from food crops such as ethanol do not work in airplanes because ethanol congeals at low temperatures. It also has a lower energy density, or amount of energy available in a given volume, compared to kerosene, meaning a larger amount would be required for any long-haul trip. The size of battery needed for long distances likewise limits the viability of electric planes beyond short-haul trips (although researchers are at work trying to minimize this problem). A plane becomes simply too heavy. However, these more sustainable types of jet biofuel are in short supply.
The move comes in the wake of a 2016 international agreement to achieve carbon neutrality in the aviation sector by 2020, a deadline that will likely have to deploy a raft of carbon offsets to be achieved, which again faces food security and deforestation challenges. Ottawa also has a long-term target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half on 2005 levels, independent of offsets, by 2050.
Also last week in Mexico City, members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) endorsed a new 2050 Vision for Sustainable Aviation Fuels, which aims to replace conventional jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by a “large percentage” by mid-century. The language adopted is more vague than had originally been proposed by the organization. The ICAO had originally proposed that two percent of international aviation fuel would be sustainable by 2025, 32 percent by 2040 and 50 percent by 2050.
Green groups—some 100 groups backed by a petition signed by 181,000 people—see the omission of volumes and targets as a win. They are pushing for the development of genuinely sustainable alternatives, and more-specific language could allow for greater use of palm oil and hence greater deforestation in regions where the fuel is sourced such as Indonesia, home to some of the most charismatic endangered species such as the orangutan. The campaigners were largely supported by China and the EU, but were opposed by Brazil and Indonesia.
The Climate Examiner speaks to BC-based Carbon Engineering about the technology, the business and the policies that could make direct air capture, synfuels and carbon sequestration work.