Energy: Energy: Hoping for take-off with renewables (UNFCCC Part6)

Some planes from Alaska Airlines use biofuels (photo:dpa)
Some planes from Alaska Airlines use biofuels (photo:dpa)

Durban diary- snippets from the United Nations climate change conference in Durban, South Africa. Some airlines are using a biofuel mix rather than fossil fuels alone to power their engines. The arguments over the cost of the move, the benefits and what this means for land use and food prices continue to be debated in Durban.

HIGH oil prices are hitting the aviation industry but the green lobby wants to impose an even costlier biofuel mix on airlines.

Test flights using a 30 per cent mix of biofuel produced from natural waste, sugar, vegetable oil and algae have taken place since 2008.

They would expect the airline industry to be able to use up to a 50 per cent mix in planes without modifying the engines

Susan Hunt, senior adviser to the Richard Branson founded Carbon War Room, said, at a press conference at COP17, the climate change conference, that they would expect the airline industry to be able to use up to a 50 per cent mix in planes without modifying the engines. The efficiency is said to be equally good as fossil fuels, but there are many variables, and more tests need to be done.

Renewable fuel

The chairman of the War Room, a non-profit organisation aiming to find climate change solutions, is Jose Maria Figueres, former president of Costa Rica and perhaps the first man to launch a carbon tax. He said that governments and the private sector needed to work together to make renewable fuel a success.

He also said he did not want renewables or biofuel to compete for land used to grow food.

But there is little chance of that. Several studies have said that any big push for biofuels will eventually reduce the amount of land available for growing food. There is also fear that this would increase food prices.

The advocates of biofuel argue that unused or fallow land could be used for producing the raw material rather than using prime agricultural land.

Food production

The aviation biofuels are about 25 per cent more expensive but that could be an underestimate. Alaska Airlines is already using biofuels in about four flights a day but said that it paid US$16 a gallon for renewable fuel in November, 2011, instead of US$3.15 for regular aviation fuel.

There is an argument that prices will drop as production increases and technology improves.

Alternatives require much larger energy inputs and use large areas of land to produce crops for fuel rather than other productive uses

Julian Morris, President of International Policy Network and Vice-President of Research at the American Reason Foundation, says that the most economically efficient way to produce jet fuel is to use oil from subsurface reserves.

He said alternatives require much larger energy inputs and use large areas of land to produce crops for fuel rather than other productive uses, such as food production. This would drive up the price of food.

It is possible that more efficient biofuels would be developed in the future, he said, but subsidising existing biofuels may discourage this development.

Additional research by Hardev Sanotra

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