Flights of fancy

| 1st October 2008
Joss Garman
Another day, another wonder crop offering green and guilt-free air travel. When will the aviation industry get is head out of the clouds?

Last week a good friend of mine who works for an international development charity in West Africa wrote me an email to ask what I thought about jatropha. Ja-what? Well, that was my reaction too. So I did some research and discovered the latest in cutting-edge aviation industry greenwash.

Jatropha is a crop that can be grown on marginal land and is relatively low-impact. It’s easy to grow in developing countries because you can grow it in harsh environments such as the Sahel region of Africa, and you could theoretically get a high-value crop for poor farmers. It grows on non-productive land, on laterite (metal-heavy rock) and salt-intruded soils. Better still, it works as a good live fence, because animals don’t touch it.

My friend was understandably pretty enthusiastic, given that it could provide a low-maintenance, high-energy fuel to generate an income for the impoverished farmers that he works with. The good news, he told me, is that Air New Zealand is trialling it as a biofuel to power its aircraft. Sounds like a rare piece of positive news. Maybe the Royal Commission on Pollution got it wrong when they said credible alternatives to kerosene were years off? No, as so often, the real scientists were right.

In New Scientist, David Strahan recently published an investigation into the growing claims from the air industry that new low-carbon fuels for planes are just around the corner. Here’s what Strahan found out about jatropha: ‘Aviation currently consumes around five million barrels of jet fuel per day, or 238 million tonnes per year. On current jatropha yields – 1.7 tonnes of oil per hectare – replacing that would take 1.4 million square kilometres, well over twice the size of France. To put this in context, D1 Oils, the British company pioneering biofuel from jatropha in countries such as India, Zambia and Indonesia, plans to plant 10,000km² over the next four years’.

And so we face the same old problem. I have little doubt that it is theoretically possible to get a programme growing of certificated, fair-trade, organic, clean-living, community-owned jatropha crops that don’t displace food crops; it’s theoretically possible, too, to use those happy jatropha oils for biofuel – but it would be because of a market intervention, and not really because the crop was jatropha. You could do the same with palm oil. And just because interventions in the market can create little havens of sustainability, that doesn’t change the overall market machine.

So, for example, Unilever could have one plantation as ‘green’ as can be, on reclaimed land, producing a stream of certificated and ‘safe’ oil to sell to handwringing North London liberals to put into their VWs, but all around it could be trashing the forest for cheap palm oil to sell to the Chinese food industry to make however many hundreds of billions of pots of instant noodles the company makes each year. On a project-by-project basis, jatropha could be fine – but a panacea, it isn’t.

Were a big market for jatropha to develop – for the aviation industry or others – it could become profitable enough to interest factory farmers. Before you know it, there’s pressure for the conversion of land into plantations, and thence deforestation. After all, in theory palm oil is low-impact and sustainable too – certainly compared to sunflower, rape and olive – until it gets too high-value and requires vast plantations, replacing peatland and rainforest!

The Advertising Standards Authority slated Ryanair for ‘playing down the impact of aviation on the environment’, but the new frontier for climate activists is battling the industry’s spin that Branson’s coconuts, or the contents of someone, somewhere’s Petridish, holds the key to tackling the unsustainable growth in flying. The reality is that making fewer journeys by air and using electrifi ed transport wherever possible are the only sustainable solutions for our transport needs into the climate-changing 21st century.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2008

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