Doubts have been cast over the sources of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) just as airlines look to increase the amount used for their flights.
SAF is seen as an interim answer to the problem of carbon emissions from flying. It is a ‘drop-in’ fuel, meaning it can be used without adapting conventional jet engines, and although it is up to three times more expensive than kerosene, customers are being persuaded to pay more to encourage increased production and bring prices down.
There are doubts, however, including a new study which shows that despite the European Union promoting used cooking oil as a waste product which will reduce the lifetime emissions of the fuel used to power transport, over half of it comes from abroad. As demand could double by 2030, it leaves the EU increasingly reliant on imports, despite EU auditors raising concerns over inadequate systems to stop virgin oils like palm, which drive deforestation, being passed off as used.
NGO Transport & Environment (T&E), which commissioned the study, is calling on the EU to limit the amount of used cooking oil in transport and improve monitoring to avoid fuelling deforestation.
The NGO says that China supplies over a third (34 per cent) of Europe’s used cooking oil imports while almost a fifth (19 per cent) comes from major palm oil producers Malaysia and Indonesia combined. Within a decade the volume Europe needs could double to 6 million tonnes as EU countries strive to meet targets for renewable fuels in transport, the study finds. This in turn could trigger palm oil being used to replace cooking oil in exporting countries while also incentivising fraud (mixing virgin oil).
Cristina Mestre, biofuels manager at T&E, said: “Europe’s thirst for used cooking oil to power its transport sector is outstripping the amount leftover from the continent’s deep fryers. This leaves us reliant on a waste product being shipped from the other side of the world. Countries that would use used cooking oil for animal feed and other products may end up exporting theirs while using cheap oil, like palm, at home. The EU needs to limit the use of used cooking oil to avoid doing more harm than good.”
It would be possible for Europe to increase local sources of genuine used cooking oil, says T&E, but at present there are the limits both of the capacity of local authorities to collect it and how much used cooking oil Europeans and EU industries can produce.
As used cooking oil is counted double towards national renewables targets under the EU Renewable Energy Directive, ironically it is often traded at a higher price than virgin oil. This increases the risk that virgin oils could be fraudulently mixed with imported used cooking oil.
The EU Court of Auditors has said that voluntary schemes cannot guarantee that all the UCO imported into Europe is actually ‘used’.
Cristina Mestre concluded: “The current EU system for biofuels does not provide certainty that used cooking oil is actually used. The EU should strengthen its verification and monitoring requirements along the supply chain and do regular checks to make sure it is really a waste product and therefore sustainable.”
The NGO says that palm oil production is one of the key drivers of deforestation in Southeast Asia and increasingly in South America. The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive will be reviewed in June, including the rules that govern renewable fuels in transport.
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