ICAO must design robust sustainability criteria for aviation biofuels into its market measure

ICAO must design robust sustainability criteria for aviation biofuels into its market measure | WWF-UK,James Beard

Fri 25 Sep 2015 – Aviation industry leaders will gather next week in Geneva for their green conference and congratulate themselves on their efforts to reduce emissions. But a reality check is needed. A bio-fuelled flight here and a more efficient engine there are great – but they don’t disguise the fact that aviation emissions are continuing to soar, and there is still no policy in place to control them. WWF is working with colleagues in the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ICSA) to ensure both aviation is covered in the Paris climate deal, writes James Beard (right), and the UN aviation agency ICAO delivers the key features of a market-based measure (MBM) to cap aviation emissions at its Assembly one year from now.


The heart of the MBM will likely be a carbon offsetting scheme, but it will also set a framework that for the first time recognises emission reductions from biofuels in international flights. WWF supports the use of biofuels in aviation because, unlike power generation, there are not really any other low-carbon energy sources on the table.


However, we only support the use of sustainable biofuels. Past experience, for example with EU policy for road biofuels, has shown extreme care must be taken in designing biofuel policies in order to avoid unintended – and very damaging – consequences for people and planet. Biofuels are certainly not a silver bullet for aviation’s emissions problem.


ICAO needs to develop criteria to ensure airlines are using the right kinds of biofuel, which means tackling indirect land use change (ILUC) and supporting all three dimensions of sustainability: social, economic and environmental. This is a key aspect of making sure the MBM is environmentally effective, works in a way that is fair for all peoples of all countries, and is consistent with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be agreed by world leaders this weekend.


The number one priority for preventing dangerous climate change is reducing our use of fossil fuels, including aviation kerosene. Fossil fuels start out buried deep underground, whereas biofuels are made of plants and wastes that are above ground, so when biofuels substitute for fossil fuels, they help keep that fossil carbon locked away. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t mean all biofuels are always good. In order for biofuels to really combat climate change, they must emit less carbon over their full lifecycle than kerosene – and that includes emissions from both direct and indirect land use change.



Addressing ILUC


ILUC occurs when biofuel production reduces availability (and increases prices) of crops for other sectors, such as food. As a result, natural environments like forests and grasslands will be converted into new cropland, which can damage habitats and increase emissions. ILUC emissions are difficult to measure as they are not in the control of biofuel producers, but estimates must nevertheless be counted in order to fully understand the GHG impacts of biofuels.


This is a key lesson of EU biofuels policy, which initially failed to address ILUC at all, and after years of policy wrangling and investment hiatus, ended up putting a cap on the use of crop-based biofuels. If ICAO wants to avoid similar policy battles down the road, it needs to get the criteria right from day one.


Another option is to demonstrate project level mitigation measures that address ILUC, for instance, using the ‘low ILUC risk’ certification module offered by the Roundtable for Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), based on a methodology developed by WWF, Ecofys and EPFL. Biofuels that demonstrably present low ILUC risk by increasing yield or by using degraded land or waste could be exempted from accounting for ILUC emissions.


In UN lingo, there are three dimensions to sustainability: not just environmental, but social and economic too. It would be pretty shocking if the UN aviation agency’s sustainability criteria for biofuels did not use the UN’s own definition of sustainability, especially with the MBM coming hot on the heels of the new SDGs. But incredibly, there is a real risk of that. Even though all three dimensions of sustainability were highlighted in the 2013 ICAO Assembly Resolution (p. 98), discussion on social and economic criteria could be booted into the long grass.


When ICAO does come to look at the full spectrum of sustainability, it can again look to existing initiatives like RSB and the aireg (the German aviation biofuel association) criteria that WWF-Germany helped to develop.  Biofuel certification schemes that support all three dimensions of sustainability – social, economic and environmental – actually help promote sustainable development, and avoid the risks of undermining it.


As well as addressing GHG emissions, criteria should also ensure that biofuel production does not:

  • cause damage to natural habitats and ecosystems;
  • lead to local scarcity of water for drinking, for other economic activities, or for downstream freshwater ecosystems; and
  • negatively impact on soil and air quality in biomass producing regions.


In poverty-affected regions, certification can also promote the social and economic development of local, rural and indigenous people and communities. For instance, RSB ensures that developers offer training and employment to communities, with a particular focus on offering opportunities to people at risk of being marginalised, such as women and young people.


RSB certification also ensures that biomass production respects human, labour and land rights, and enhances food security. The food security issue is closely tied to economic sustainability. The main cause of hunger is not lack of food, but lack of money to buy food.



ICAO’s choice on biofuels


WWF worked hard to make sure the SDGs reflected a simple fact: sustainable development is impossible without effective climate change policy, and effective climate change policy is impossible if it ignores sustainable development.


If ICAO does not address ILUC in its biofuels criteria, then it runs the risk of incentivising biofuels that make climate change worse, and if it ignores the wider environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainability, then it risks incentivising biofuel production that undermines the objectives of the SDGs.


If, on the other hand, ICAO does address ILUC and the full spectrum of sustainability, then it will help drive truly sustainable biofuels that provide material near-term benefits to people living in poverty, and the invaluable long-term benefit of a stable climate.


ICAO’s choice on biofuels is clear: increase climate risk, undermine sustainable development and be unfair to developing countries, or be fair, promote sustainable development and help safeguard a stable climate for all.



The author, James Beard, is an aviation and bioenergy specialist with WWF-UK




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