Destinations

Biofuels: Good and Evil

Biofuels: Good and Evil
The development of biofuels is gathering pace globally and the travel industry has plenty to gain from creating new and renewable fuel sources. But despite the potential for a cleaner future, biofuels can be both an environmental hero and villain. Richie Kenzie and Emma Mackenzie explore the opportunities and threats presented by biofuels.

Picture yourself watching a juvenile orang-utan swinging through the branches in its pristine rainforest habitat. It's a natural spectacle of the first order and one that has delighted more than a select few Australian travellers to Borneo and Sumatra, particularly in recent years. But in a macabre irony, those travelling to see these incredible creatures are likely contributing to their demise – and probably don't even know it.  

The culprit is palm oil, a substance used to make one of most controversial biofuels that exists today. And you are almost certainly consuming it, probably every day of the week.  

Palm oil is everywhere. It's a highly saturated vegetable fat that does not contain cholesterol and thus makes an excellent cooking agent. It's also cost efficient to produce and is regularly included in processed foods – baked goods, confectionery, cosmetics, body products and cleaning agents – it's found in them all.  

Until the last few decades its utility value wasn't fully realised or commodified. Complicating matters further, palm oil is also increasingly sought after to produce biodiesel, an energy source that could be integral in replacing non-renewable fuels such as petroleum and natural gas.

It might sound like a veritable wonder product but mass production of palm oil has created a fork in the road in environmental terms. This is because its potential to solve problems is counterbalanced by its tendency to create them. And for travellers to some of our near neighbours the moral dilemma of palm oil couldn't be in starker view.

Malaysia is a prime example. It's home to some of the world's most biodiverse rainforest areas, among the planet's most fertile breeding grounds for life. And while orang-utans thrive in the tropical climes of Borneo and Sumatra, so to does elaeis guineensis, better known as the African oil palm.

For all its potential uses, the opportunity cost of producing palm oil is considerable. Rapacious developers in Indonesia and Malaysia, motivated by the prospect of speedy profits, are bulldozing old growth forests at a frightening rate to make way for palm plantations. Little wonder then that the Bornean orang-utan is now endangered and its near neighbour the Sumatran orang-utan is critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Orangutan Project – an Australian not-for-profit organisation that aims to protect the creature in its natural habitat – estimates that 300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour in Malaysia to make way for palm plantations. This mass deforestation is pushing the already threatened orang-utan towards the abyss of extinction.

"The Orang-utan project does not support palm oil that comes from the islands of Borneo or Sumatra. We acknowledge that palm oil plantations set up on any land will likely have displaced natural habitat, however this is true of all permanent forms of agriculture," president of The Orangutan Project Leif Cocks said. The organisation advises that consumers can do their bit to combat the proliferation of palm oil by being diligent and not purchasing products that contain it.

In terms of ongoing deforestation, one of the key problems in Malaysia is that of unauthorised plantations, a practice The Orangutan Project has attempted to curtail. "We are currently supporting a legal case against a major palm oil corporation operating illegally in Northern Sumatra, in the Aceh region, called Pt Kalista Alam. We've just discovered that their appeal to the Supreme Court has been rejected, meaning our administrative case against their permit has won. This is a massive breakthrough, and comes thanks to a tireless international campaign over the last two years," Cocks said.   

There are other biofuels being developed that come with similar red flags. Ethanol-based biofuel is seen as a viable future replacement for aviation gas – a fuel responsible for between 2% and 3% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. But being derived from cane sugar means its use as a fuel comes at the cost of its use as a food.  

The so-called fuel versus food debate will be a major moral dilemma for the planet in the next century. And while converting food crops into energy sources is not a contentious issue in first world countries like Australia, in third world countries (where cane crops are overwhelmingly grown) evidence has shown that biofuel cultivation can drive food prices up and, in a worst case scenario, lead to food shortages.  

There is light at the end of the tunnel though, particularly when it comes to air travel. Possibly more than any other industry within travel, aviation is taking steps towards reducing its carbon footprint through the use of biofuels. 

The move has come from the top echelons. The former International Air Transport Association (IATA) chief executive Giovanni Bisignani, for example, tackled the issues head on when he addressed the 65th IATA Annual General Meeting and World Air Transport Summit back in 2009. He spoke at length of his desire to make air travel cleaner and the benchmarks that he outlined four years ago proved that IATA meant business.
By the year 2020 the international aviation industry aims to have achieved carbon neutral growth, he told over 500 airline powerbrokers at the time. That is to say, that from 2020 onwards carbon emissions would not rise from the already established levels. Looking to an even longer term future, he decreed that IATA was aiming for a 50% absolute reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. And in the years leading up to 2020, IATA's aim was see an average annual improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5%.

Biofuels such as jatropha are one way of achieving these lofty goals and unlike palm oil, have fewer natural demerits when it comes to their cultivation. Jatropha is a species of flowering plant which thrives in arid environments. It also has a high toxicity, rendering it useless as a food crop.

One species in particular has excited scientists in the last decade – jatropha curcas. This particular variant, a native of the Central American tropics is not susceptible to drought or pests, meaning it can be grown commercially in desert-like environments, essentially on land not fit for any other purpose. Its seed, sometimes called the physic nut contains between 27% and 40% oil, which can be cultivated into a high quality biofuel. After the oil is harvested, the residue, or press cake can be used to power electricity plants, as a fertiliser or as animal feed, meaning it has high utility value.

The only catch? It requires an estimated 20,000 litres of water per kilogram of biofuel produced according to scientists. However, its proponents point out that its adaptability means it could be a job creator in poor, arid nations, where large numbers of people could find employment by cultivating it.

In the skies, already demonstration and commercial flights have taken place using jatropha, as well as other new era biofuels such as algae, the camelina plant, waste cooking oil and even animal fats. Back in June 2011 KLM flew 171 passengers from Amsterdam to Paris on the world's first flight using biofuel – albeit only a small percentage of the total fuel load. Other flights have followed, although aviation is still a fair way from consistently servicing routes using biofuel mixtures, let alone substituting aviation gasoline for biofuel.

Alas, it seems with every leap forward in biofuel development there is a small step back. But with improved methods of cultivating suitable crops in future, there is no reason to think that travelling won't be a greener pursuit in decades to come. But for now, you can do your bit in the short term and give palm oil products a wide berth – it'll keep a smile on an orangutan's face.

What do the Greens say about this?

Although biofuels offer great promise as an alternative fuel for low carbon transport, a safe and acceptable way of producing them is yet to be determined. Greens NSW MP and energy spokesperson John Kaye stated.

The competition between the production of biofuels and food plantations in other areas of the world has resulted in an increase of the price of staples in some countries, a consequence the Greens recognise as unacceptable.

Palm oil is one of the biofuels the Greens observe as being especially problematic as the ongoing development of large scale plantations of oil palms would "condemn the orangutan to extinction".

"The Greens are calling for a science-based approach to sustainable transport fuels so that habitat and farm land are not sacrificed and that the carbon footprint of transport is substantially reduced," Kaye said.


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