So How Much Agricultural Land Will We Need To Keep Global Aviation Aloft With Biofuels?

jet engine photo

photo: Ed Lushcei via flickr.

With a continuing stream of announcements regarding the aviation industry's drive to keep on flying while being a bit greener about it -- KLM is making the first aviation biofuel test flight with passengers today -- TreeHugger wondered how much land will be required to power the global aviation industry with biofuels. We did some quick calculations and this is what we found out:Nearly 46 Billion Gallons Consumed in 2008
Based on data from the Air Transport Association, in 2008 US-registered airlines consumed 18.85 billion gallons of fuel, 85% of which was from passenger flights (16 billion gallons or so). Which is in turn about 35% of estimated global airline fuel consumption, or 45.8 billion gallons of fuel.

Most test flights are using a blend of feedstocks for their biofuel, often some mixture of algae, jatropha, and camelina, in varying proportions. For our calculations, let's mix evenly.

They're also mixing it 50-50 with petroleum-based fuel, but for the sake of this calculation let's assume full biofuels.

Aviation Biofuel Likely to be Blended Feedstocks
Crop yields of all three of our proposed feedstocks vary depending on who's reporting them, at least partially because no one's producing large quantities of either camelina-based biofuels or from algae.The exception is jatropha, but there the crop yields vary so widely by region that the average yield is probably lower than an individual high claim suggests.

So let's use some conservative estimates of 300 gallons per acre for algae, 140 gallons per acre for jatropha, and 100 gallons per acre for camelina.

Mixed in thirds, it means each gallon of blended aviation biofuel needs the equivalent of 0.006 acres of cropland.

1.11 Million Square Kilometers, or...
Which means (drumroll...) some 274.8 million acres of cropland would be needed to supply the global aviation industry at current levels of consumption. That's 1.11 million square kilometers or about 424,700 square miles, if you prefer to think in those terms.

Another reference point: That's about the area of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa combined.

...2.5% of Current Agricultural Land Needed
In terms of how much of the world's crop and pastureland, 15 million square kilometers in the world is devoted to crops and 28 million square kilometers for pasture. About 2.5% of that would have to be taken up to satisfy current aviation fuel demand, under the assumptions here.

Aviation Biofuels
Aviation Biofuels Could Be Commercially Used Within 3 Years
Japan Airlines Finds Biofuel More Efficient Than Petro-Fuel in Test Flight
40,000 Gallons of Camelina Chose for US Navy's Aviation Biofuel Test Program

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