Friday, February 01, 2008

Biofuels - Part of the Answer or Part of the Problem?

It's been a conflicting week for biofuels - alternatives to fossil fuels based on plant extracts.

On the one hand, an Airbus A380, the world's largest airliner, became the first commercial jet to use alternative fuel on Friday, marking a milestone on the road to biofuels, according to its manufacturers. The plane (which boasts a double-decker capacity of 853 passengers) needed no modification to use the gas-to-liquid (GTL) fuel, which was designed to be mixed with regular jet fuel.

This seemingly modest step, which Airbus admits results in no less CO2 emissions than regular fuel, is being hailed by some as a key in the move towards the widespread use of synthetic fuels in the coming years. In fact, GTL fuel is a step away from BTL (biomass-to-liquid) fuel, which can potentially be made from organic matter such as crops, wood chips or even algae.

With Virgin Airways testing GTL fuel in a 747 jet later this month and Qatar Airways planning the first regular commercial flights on GTL in 2009, industry chiefs are hailing this week's flight from Bristol as a significant step in the direction of cleaner flying, with up to 25% of flights predicted to be using alternative fuels by 2025.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the M4 in central London a small but vociferous group of protesters were staging a protest outside the headquarters of Greenergy International, an oil company with large biofuel interests who are at the forefront of the production of ethanol (from sugar cane) and biodesiels from soya, palm oil and rapeseed oil, a development reported on last week on this blog.

Over 200 organisations, many involved in development work, have called for an EU moratorium on agrofuels from large-scale monocultures. Similar calls have been made from many organisations in Africa, Asia and Latin America and at the same time the United Nations Special Reporter for the Right of Food has described current biofuel production ‘a crime against humanity’ and is demanding a 5 year moratorium.

At the heart of the issue is the large-scale production of agricultural foodstuffs for the biofuel industry. This is often carried out at the cost of deforestation, eviction of small farmers, land competition and the rising price of food. The local environmental, agricultural and economic impact has been described as "tens of millions of hectares being converted to vast moncultures to grow fuel for Western cars."

In the UK, the government will require fuel producers to blend petrol and diesel with biofuels from April 15th this year. Last week, meanwhile, the cross-party Parliamentary Environment Audit Committee concluded that biofuels were not a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.

The PR value of being the world's "greenest airline" is enormous. The reality in terms of climate change and environmental impact is only beginning to be understood.

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