Sky's the limit for palm oil

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Increased production can reduce aviation industry’s greenhouse gas emissions

For many years, the aviation industry has been criticised for its high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Boeing Company and other aviation industry operators held a forum in Kuala Lumpur recently to explore new sources of renewable biofuels.

The aviation industry  contributes 649 million tonnes of GHG emissions annually, which represents two to three per cent of the total globally. In comparison, emissions from the oil palm industry are  small.

The negligible GHG footprint of the oil palm industry encouraged the forum participants to consider the use of palm oil biofuel to help reduce emissions in the aviation industry.

Doubling the production of palm oil in Malaysia will not add much to the carbon footprint of the oil palm industry. Instead, it will provide 18 million tonnes or 8.6 billion gallons more of potential jet biofuel.

The total consumption of aviation fuel per year is estimated at 70 billion gallons. A 12 per cent replacement of the world aviation biofuel can be achieved if the Malaysian production can be doubled to cater to this demand.

The road map for inclusion of biofuel in aviation fuel begins modestly with an initial blend share of one per cent by 2015. This could be increased gradually with one per cent additional biofuel in the fuel blend annually so that GHG emissions will be maintained at current levels, despite exponential growth in future global air travel.

Malaysian palm oil potentially fits the road map because of   its ability to replace a small percentage of the world aviation biofuel demand.

Palm oil from other sources could also be considered until a long-term plan by the aviation industry to meet its target replacement of 50 per cent blend of biofuel in aviation fuel is achieved.

Such a large demand for bio-renewable aviation fuel can be supplemented if the biomass generated by the oil palm industry can be harnessed for conversion into aviation biofuel.

Palm oil makes up only 10 per cent of the biomass produced by the oil palm tree. The remaining 90 per cent (dry weight basis) can be partly converted into biofuel using biomass to liquid technology or bio-refinery, which is being developed rapidly around the world.

Only palm oil can provide a solution for practical consideration. Other oilseeds cannot produce the quantities envisaged because of the inherent low yield per hectare per year of between five  and 11 times less than that of palm oil.

Countries capable of supplying excess vegetable oil to the world market are limited to Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil producers.

With doubling of yield through productivity and hectarage expansion, and employing other oil palm biomass for further conversion into aviation fuel, the availability could well meet the future target of having a 50 per cent blend of biofuel in  aviation fuel mixture.

Palm oil meets the certification criteria for sustainability as many producers in Malaysia participate in  certification schemes and have obtained their certificates from certifying bodies such as the  Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil  and  International Sustainability and Carbon Certification. A minor obstacle to the  implementation of the aviation biofuel plan is the relatively high cost of biofuel in comparison  with petroleum-derived aviation fuel.

The lack of an excess supply from other vegetable oils and a high demand for palm oil for food will cause market forces to price palm oil above petroleum fuel. Otherwise, palm oil will be burned as fuel.

This will ensure that its price will remain above the price of petroleum fuel, and petroleum price will be the floor price for palm and other vegetable oils.

With the planned expansion of oil palm production, the  increase in supply to meet the needs of the aviation industry can be achieved.

The food versus fuel debate does not apply as the main consideration is which profitable crop to plant on scarce available agricultural land (large areas of degraded land not under forest reserves) where oil palm can be grown.

Non-food oil crops, such as jatropha, can also be grown on degraded land, but they yield  only 20 per cent that of oil palm and  are  more expensive to produce, thus, making them  a much less attractive solution.

Consumers  must be willing to pay the cost to reduce GHG emissions from the aviation industry.

European Union plans to impose a carbon tax on the aviation sector is a step in the right direction. It is imperative that the money raised goes to compensate farmers who produce the extra supply of raw material for the aviation fuel industry.

Much emphasis  is placed on the certification process for sustainability, which means  that the administrative charge consumes up to 80 per cent of the money raised to incentivise the production of renewable biofuel.

 Ironically, the cost for employing auditors and paying for membership of certification bodies is more than the rate of compulsory research funding imposed on the Malaysian palm oil industry.

New opportunities for an increased supply of palm oil based aviation biofuel can be realised through more research and allocation of funds.

However, if the cost of certification is higher than the investment in research, and if the carbon tax benefits only the bureaucracy, this will  slow down the development of aviation biofuel from oil palm sources.

Development of aviation biofuel from other vegetable oils will be next to impossible. Oil palm is the only viable solution in the long term.

Oil palm is the only viable solution in the long term.


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