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Global aviation climate goals could drive 3 million ha of deforestation report warns

The aviation industry’s global climate targets are likely to lead to a "dramatic increase in demand" for palm and soy oil for aviation biofuels which could result in 3.2 million hectares (ha) of tropical forest loss, a new report commissioned by Rainforest Foundation Norway warns.

The aviation industry’s global climate targets are likely to lead to a dramatic increase in demand for palm and soy oil for aviation biofuels which could result in 3.2 million hectares (ha) of tropical forest loss, a new report commissioned by Rainforest Foundation Norway warns.

As the general assembly meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) got underway in Montreal, Canada, Rainforest Foundation Norway’s newly published report ‘Destination deforestation‘ goes into the heated debate about “flight shame” and the role of the aviation sector in contributing to the climate crisis.

The report, which was conducted by Dr Chris Malins of alternative and cleaner fuels policy, sustainability and regulation consultancy Cerulogy, reviews the status of the targets the aviation industry has set for alternative fuels and shows how high the risk is that expanding biofuel use in aviation will cause increased deforestation.

Could lead to “sky-high” demand for soy and palm oil

The aviation industry has set an aspirational goal to reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 50 percent in 2050, compared to 2005, without limiting growth. Central to this vision is a near-complete shift from conventional jet fuel to alternative aviation fuels. Near-total replacement of fossil fuel would be needed to meet this target the report notes.

The report highlights that a number of technologies are available to produce aviation biofuels including alcohol-to-jet (J) and electricity (Power-to-Jet), but the only one of these technologies is currently operating at a commercial scale  – the ‘HEFA’ (hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids) process pathway to produce jet fuel from vegetable oils and animal fats.

Currently, the cheapest and most readily available feedstocks for HEFA jet fuel are palm oil and soy oil, both of which are closely linked to tropical deforestation. Unless alternative aviation fuel policies actively support more sustainable options, the report warns that it is likely that meeting the aviation industry’s aspirations to reduce emissions would lead to a sharp increase in demand for soy and palm oils.

Refuelling of a turboprop aircraft.

The aviation industry has set an aspirational goal to reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 50% in 2050, compared to 2005, without limiting growth. Central to this vision is a near-complete shift from conventional jet fuel to alternative aviation fuels, which according to a new report, could lead to an additional demand of over 70 million tonnes of palm- and soy oil if the targets are met using the HEFA pathway, the cheapest and readily available alternative aviation fuel technology.

The report estimates that meeting the aspirational targets outlined by ICAO through the cheapest and most readily available technology would lead to an additional demand in 2030 of 35 million tonnes of palm oil, 3.5 million tonnes of palm oil by-products palm fatty acid distillate (PFAD), and 35 million tonnes of soy oil.

For comparison, the current global annual production of palm oil globally is around 70 million tonnes.

Tropical forest at risk

The report concludes that this increased demand for palm oil and soy could drive 3.2 million hectares (ha) of tropical forest loss, an area larger than the size of Belgium. Furthermore, 5 gigatons of land-use change carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions could be the result in 2030, which is close to the current annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the United States, unless measures are taken to avoid the targets being met using the most readily available aviation biofuel technology and feedstocks.

The aviation industry risks becoming a major threat against the world’s rainforests. While ICAO’s proposed use of alternative aviation fuels is meant to reduce emissions, it in fact risks inducing massive emissions from the destruction of tropical forests and peatlands, alongside loss of biodiversity and violations of the rights of forest-dependent peoples, said Nils Hermann Ranum of Rainforest Foundation Norway.

Strong measures are needed

Aviation biofuel policy at the EU level and in selected countries is also reviewed, revealing that proposed government programmes in countries such as France, Finland, Sweden, and Indonesia could contribute to the feared deforestation outlined in the report, through varyingly allowing for the use of aviation biofuels based on palm oil, PFAD and soy oil respectively.

An oil palm fruit.

Avoiding the direct use of palm oil and soy oil as feedstocks can reduce the deforestation impact of alternative fuel policies, the report notes, but due to the connectivity of global vegetable oil markets, any use of food oils as biofuel feedstock will drive the expansion of tropical oil crops, with associated indirect deforestation and accompanying GHG emissions.

The aviation industry should take urgent steps to avoid using biofuels from the highest deforestation risk feedstocks such as palm oil, PFAD, and soy. They should also exclude or limit support for biofuels from food oils more generally. Anything less would risk severely undermining the world’s commitment through the Sustainable Development Goals to stop deforestation and strive to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, concluded Nils Hermann Ranum.

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