Will aviation biofuel take-off in the UK?

The UK government recently published its new biofuels policy. Four days later British Airways announced a partnership with Velocys to produce aviation biofuel from household waste in the UK.  These announcements are not unconnected.  Recognising that biofuels are the only way to reduce the carbon emissions of aviation, the UK has decided to offer the same incentives for aviation biofuel as it currently does for road transport biofuel.  

Blending obligations for biofuels will increase to 9.75% in 2020 and 12.4% in 2032, increasing overall demand for biofuels, which is good news for the industry. The UK also wants most biofuels to be produced from wastes rather than crops, which fits the BA strategy of using household waste. 

This is the second attempt for BA after an earlier biofuel project, Solena, collapsed; but does this project stand more chance of success? Well the UK announcement should help to offset the cost penalty for aviation biofuel, but the devil is in the detail.  From the UK’s announcement, it is clear that only the biomass portion of household waste, mainly kitchen and garden waste, will be eligible for incentives. BA claims in its press release that the waste it will use is currently sent to landfill. ‘Nappies, plastic food containers and chocolate bar wrappers’ are described in the announcement. This seems to indicate waste after recyclables have been removed, which is mainly plastic and not eligible for subsidy.

So is BA anticipating a further change in UK policy to extend subsidies to fossil plastic waste? This could mean the difference between success and failure for the project. Well that is what the UK is hinting at, as it ‘notes the potential of low carbon fossil fuels’, which have also been proposed for inclusion in the RED after 2020. The UK government commits to further investigation of the potential greenhouse gas savings associated with these ‘low carbon’ fuels.  Whether fuels made from fossil plastic can ever be ‘low carbon’ is a point of contention. Also, many people think that waste plastic should be recycled in a circular economy not burned as fuel. All this points to a difficult policy decision to be made by the UK, but perhaps the world’s favourite airline already knows the outcome.

Published: 22 September 17

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