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Friends of Earth rains on Lufthansa biofuel parade

Friends of Earth rains on Lufthansa biofuel parade

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As regular biofuel passenger flights take off, environmental group condemns biofuels for causing poverty, raising food prices and possibly increasing CO2. Is there no jet alternative to fossil fuels?

Friends of the Earth today condemned Lufthansa’s use of biofuels on commercial flights as “greenwashing” that makes an environmentally destructive practice appear eco-friendly.

“Lufthansa is painting itself green with biofuels – but these flights are anything but environmentally friendly,” said Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe. “Biofuels exacerbate poverty and hunger, drive land grabbing and deforestation, push up food prices, and make climate change worse.”

He issued his statement prior to the scheduled 11:15 a.m. take-off of Lufthansa flight LH013 from Hamburg-to-Frankfurt. The 244-mile trip marked the first ever use of jet biofuels on a regular commercial service. Lufthansa plans to use the fuel for 6 months on 8 daily trips between the two cities, for a total of 1200 flights.

Likewise, KLM-Air France plans to fly 200 regular flights between Amsterdam and Paris using biofuels in September. Yesterday, Finnair announced that it plans to test biofuels on at least 3 passenger flights between Helsinki and Amsterdam.

Airlines say biofuels can shrink the industry’s carbon footprint because they do not emit CO2 the way conventional hydrocarbon jet fuels –typically kerosene - do. Lufthansa says the 1200 flights will save 1500 tons o CO2.

But FoE points out that jet biofuels can actually increase carbon emissions, if planters of feedstocks like palm, jatropha and camelina eradicate forests and grasslands, thus releasing the CO2 stored in those natural sinks.

“Scientific studies consistently show that most of the currently used biofuels are worse for the climate than fossil fuels,” a FoE position paper states. Not only does deforestation release CO2, but so do the processes of re-locating food crops and producing biofuels. Plowing, fertilizing and harvesting emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases, it points out.

“A report produced by IEEP (Institute for European Environmental Policy) for Friends of the Earth Europe and other NGOs found that EU road biofuels are between 81% and 167% worse for the climate than the equivalent fossil fuels,” the FoE position paper says.

Biofuel plantations can also decimate biodiversity, and rob people of food and water as companies use land for biofuel feedstocks rather than for food crops, it notes.

“Last month ten international organisations, including the World Bank, WTO, UN and OECD called on G20 governments to scrap biofuel subsidies and mandates because of their impact on world poverty and food prices," FoE said today.

With partial funding from the German government, Lufthansa has purchased 800 tons of blend from Finland’s Neste Oil for the 6-month, €6.6 million biofuel program. Neste says the blend consists 80% of camelina, 15% of jatropha and 5% of animal fat and as such is environmentally responsible.

Camelina and jatropha are plants that are inedible to humans. Biofuel proponents say they can grow with relatively little water and in some cases on poor soil that would not sustain food crops. Fuel producer Honeywell UOP says that camelina grows on fallow wheat fields and improves yields in the fields’ subsequent wheat-growing years.

FoE claims that the jatropha in Neste’s Lufthansa mix comes from Mozambique, and that it signals a land grab there and in other African countries. One jatropha business, Energem, had been allocated 60,000 hectares in Mozambique that was previously used for community farming and grazing land, Blake said. Energem went into bankruptcy administration last February, and was a former "blood diamond" company that regrouped as an African green fuel operation, according to the UK's The Telegraph.

A Neste spokeswoman says that Neste does not get the jatropha from Mozambique, but that it responsibly obtains it, the camelina and animal fat from “Australasia, EU countries, North America, and Southeast Asia.” She declined to identify specific countries.

FoE biofuel campaigner Kenneth Richter added that airlines overstate the environmental friendliness of jatropha. Although the crop can grow on degraded soil, low yields mean that producers are more likely to grow it on healthy soil where it would compete against food, he noted. The same could be true of camelina, according to the FoE position paper.

By one estimate, jatropha would use up the equivalent of 35% of Germany’s arable land to meet Lufthansa’s 2025 biofuel target, FoE noted.

The controversy surrounding biofuel land use could settle down if researchers find more land-friendly sources. One such possible hope is algae. Earlier this week, researchers at the University of Bath found evidence that algae could grow in the desert, where it would not compete against food.

Photo: Friends of the Earth

Note: This version updates an earlier version with information on Energem, added at 5:20 a.m. Pacific time.

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure