Aviation climate targets may drive 3 million hectares of deforestation

The aviation industry’s climate targets are likely to lead to a dramatic increase in demand for palm oil and soy for aviation biofuels. A new report concludes that this may result in 3.2 million hectares of tropical forest loss – an area larger than Belgium. Indonesia's 5 percent target for 2025 for the use of biofuels by domestic aviation is likely to contribute to massive additional deforestation.

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A new report by Rainforest Foundation NorwayDestination Deforestation – shows the risk from expanding biofuel use in aviation will cause increased deforestation. The aviation industry has set an aspirational goal to reduce its CO2 emissions by 50 percent by 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, according to the report. Download the report here.

A NASA image of the island of Borneo where farmers burn down old-growth rain forests to make room for palm oil plantations.

In 2015, Indonesia introduced a 5 percent target for 2025 for the use of biofuels by domestic aviation. If met, this would represent 320 million litres of biojet fuel demand that would be likely to be delivered by producing biofuel from palm oil and/or palm fatty acid distillate (PFAD), a palm oil by-product. Indonesia’s blending obligation for biofuels in aviation is therefore likely to contribute to the massive deforestation discussed in the report.

Sky-high demand for soy and palm oil: A number of technologies are available to produce aviation biofuels or even to produce aviation fuels from electricity, but the only one of these technologies currently operating at a commercial scale is the ‘HEFA’ (Hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids) process to produce jet fuel from vegetable oils and animal fats.


The cheapest and most readily available feedstocks for HEFA jet fuel are palm oil and soy oil, which are closely linked to tropical deforestation. Unless alternative aviation fuel policies actively support more sustainable options, 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.

Land cleared for a palm oil plantation in the province of Riau in Indonesia.

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 tons of palm oil, 3.5 million tons of palm oil by-products (PFAD), and 35 million tons of soy oil. For comparison, the current global annual production of palm oil globally is around 70 million tons.

Previous studies, including some published by the EU Commission, have shown that the climate impact of biofuels based on palm oil and soy oil is even higher than continuing to use fossil fuels.

An area the size of Belgium at risk: The report concludes that this increased demand for palm oil and soy could drive 3,2 million hectares of tropical forest loss (an area larger than the size of Belgium) and 5 gigatons of land-use change CO2 emissions (close to the current annual greenhouse gas emissions of the USA) in 2030, 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 to 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”, says Nils Hermann Ranum of Rainforest Foundation Norway.

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

Strong measures are needed: Avoiding the direct use of palm oil and soy oil as feedstocks can reduce the deforestation impact of alternative fuel policies, 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 greenhouse gas 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”, concludes Ranum.

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Asian Aviation
Matthew Driskill is the Editor of Asian Aviation and is based in Cambodia. He has been an Asia-based journalist and content producer since 1990 for outlets including Reuters and the International Herald Tribune/New York Times and is a former president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong. He frequently appears on international broadcast outlets like CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC and has taught journalism at Hong Kong University and the American University of Paris. Driskill has received awards from the Associated Press for Investigative Reporting and Business Writing and in 1989 was named the John J. McCloy Fellow by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York where he earned his Master's Degree.


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