Flying From Frankfurt to Hamburg, With or Without Biofuels, Hard to Justify on Environmental Grounds

lufthansa A321 photo

photo: Marcus Bölt/Creative Commons

Today is the day! As I reported last week Germany airline Lufthansa has now begun using biofuels on about one-third of its flights from Frankfurt to Hamburg. The fuel is supplied by Finland's Neste Oil and until now, apart from officially not containing palm oil (phew!), the exact feedstock was not disclosed. We now know that it is a blend of jatropha, camelina and waste animal fats from factory farming.For those new to the world of lesser-known biofuel feedstocks, jatropha is a tropical and sub-tropical plant, poisonous to both human and non-human animals in all but small, medicinal quantities (it's been used traditionally as a purgative for generations).

Horticulturally it can grow in less than optimal soil and water conditions, something widely touted by companies trying to drum up support for it claiming that it won't compete with cropland. But to produce reliably produce oil in commercially-viable amounts it needs the same optimal conditions that food crops need.

For a number of years now a number of companies have tried to make successful and lasting goes at using jatropha as a feedstock--in parts of Africa and Asia claims of land grabs, in many cases genuine, have accompanied these.

Friends of the Earth Europe claims Neste is sourcing its jatropha from Mozambique (land-grab central...) but Neste denies this outright, saying that any jatropha it gets, as well as the camelina and animal fats it refines into fuel comes from "Australasia, EU countries, North America, and Southeast Asia" (Smart Planet).

Since it's generally grown in rotation with wheat, camelina is less of a problem feedstock than others. Though there's nothing categorically preventing it from competing with food crops. Animal fats for biofuels though directly competes with food crops insofar as these fats are the byproduct of factory farming and the amount of land used to grow crops to feed confined animals which then feed humans is prodigious--much of which could be used to grow crops to directly feed people, and with greater economy of effort.

The bigger question is whether we can realistically ever grow enough biofuels to supply current and projected future fuel demand in aviation. The short and glib answer is probably not. Advances in algae biofuels (to bring them to commercial scale in a way that isn't a gigantic water drain) may change that, but at this point I would not say that it's assured, however possible that future may seem at times, it's not necessarily just a matter of time.

FoEE makes the claim that 35% of Germany's arable land would be need to satisfy Lufthansa's biofuel target for 2025. In actuality probably very little of that arable land will be used, rather it'll be in Africa or in Asia. It's an emotive figure, but it doesn't go beyond that. My own back of the napkin calculations (from nearly a year ago, so the numbers may have changed slightly) indicate that about 2.5% of the world's agricultural land would be needed to completely satisfy aviation fuel demand with biofuels today.

Considering how many billions of people in the world can't even afford to ever fly and are more concerned with just keeping themselves feed day to day, that somehow seems excessive to me.

The other lashing FoEE gives Lufthansa is on the grounds that the flight from Frankfurt to Hamburg is just a four hour train ride (at four times the time and less than half the carbon emissions).

FoEE's Robert Blake says, "Short-haul flights...biofueled or not, can never be green. Lufthansa's passengers, and the climate, would be better off catching the train."

Which sort of makes it a non-argument against biofuels and aviation, but it does highlight the fact that unless you're talking trans-oceanic travel there are alternatives to flying, right now, and except at the margins all are on the balance less environmentally harmful.

Not to mention there certainly could be more realistic commercial trans-oceanic options if there was the demand and will and culture for it.

More on Aviation Biofuels
So How Much Agricultural Land Will We Need To Keep Global Aviation Aloft With Biofuels?
Lufthansa Will Become First Airline Using Biofuels On A Commercially Scheduled Route

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