Animal fat jet fuel demand risks palm oil surge, worsening emissions

Photo via Freepik

The use of animal fat as a greener alternative to traditional jet fuel is raising concerns about its impact on the environment. Animal fats, considered waste, are used to create aviation fuel with a lower carbon footprint. Demand for such fuel is expected to triple by 2030, driven by airlines. However, experts warn that scarcity in animal fat could lead to other industries relying more on palm oil, a significant contributor to carbon emissions.

Airlines are working to reduce their carbon emissions, which primarily come from burning fossil-based kerosene in aircraft engines. A study by Brussels-based Transport & Environment, a clean transport campaign group, reveals that there are not enough animals slaughtered annually to meet the growing demand for animal fats. Matt Finch from Transport & Environment said, “So if you put on a massive extra demand source from anywhere from aviation, in this case, the industries where fat is currently being used, will have to look for alternatives. And that alternative is palm oil. So aviation indirectly, will be responsible for increasing the amount of palm oil being pulled through the European systems.”

Increased use of palm oil is associated with higher emissions as older forests storing large amounts of carbon are cleared for new plantations. Animal fats have been used for centuries to make candles, soaps, and cosmetics. Over the past 20 years, biodiesel made from animal waste or used cooking oils has grown in use in the UK and beyond. Europe has seen a fortyfold increase in fuel made from dead animals since 2006.

UK and EU governments are eager to utilise waste to make aviation more environmentally friendly. They are implementing mandates requiring airlines to use a higher proportion of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in their tanks. The UK aims for 10% by 2030, while the EU targets 6%. Observers believe these plans could strain the current market for animal waste.

The UK and EU differ in their approaches. The UK is likely to limit the use of higher-quality tallow in fuel, while Europe will incentivise it due to its greater greenhouse gas reduction potential. Rising demand and prices could lead to increased exports from the UK, causing consequences. Transport & Environment estimates that a flight from Paris to New York would require fat from 8,800 dead pigs if all fuel came from animal sources.

With the UK likely to restrict the use of animal products and used cooking oils, flights refuelling in Britain will have minimal amounts of animal-derived material in their engines. In the EU, airlines will have a 6% SAF target for 2030, with 1.2% coming from e-kerosene. If the remaining 4.8% is derived entirely from animal fat, around 400 pigs per transatlantic flight would be required.

Industries like pet food manufacturers may have to seek alternative ingredients if aviation consumes a more significant share of animal fat. Nicole Paley, deputy chief executive of UK Pet Food, the manufacturers’ trade association, said, “These are really valuable ingredients for us and they are hard to replace, and they’re put to good use already in a very sustainable way.” She added that diverting these ingredients to biofuels would create another problem, putting the pet food industry in competition with the aviation sector.

While the EU is further along in this process, the UK is currently considering limiting the type of animal fats used in jet fuel. The government is contemplating a ban or strict limit on animal fats and used cooking oil in the aviation sector, concerned about unintended consequences. Some in the biofuel industry worry that proposed changes might divert animal fats from one form of transport to another. Dickon Posnett from Argent Energy, a waste-based biodiesel producer in the UK and Europe, said, “So if you want to increase aviation sustainability, at the expense of truck sustainability, then crack on. But that’s a decision for the government to make.”

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Lilly Larkin

Lilly is a writer with a diverse international background, having lived in various countries including Thailand. Her unique experiences provide valuable insights and culturally sensitive perspectives in her news reporting. When not writing, Lilly enjoys exploring local art scenes, volunteering for community projects, and connecting with people from different cultures.