Carbon emissions and climate change are a huge story in the news at the moment, and the aviation industry is, quite rightly, often in the spotlight. There is talk of using biofuels to partially or completely displace fossil fuels in aviation.
That’s easy to say, but how much land would be needed to produce the energy crops? This is a complicated question, but what I want to do here is an order-of-magnitude calculation to show the alarming scale of the issue. I’m going to ask what area of oil-seed crop we would need to fuel a single full-range flight of a typical long-haul airliner.
For a smallish long-haul airliner, such as the one above, and using the controversial but high-yielding oil palm for fuel, we’d need the annual crop from 20 hectares of land to fuel a single flight. That’s about 30 football pitches. For one flight.
That figure becomes 100 hectares (a square kilometre, 150 football pitches) if we use the less controversial oil-seed rape. For one flight.
Or to put it into a different context, airports have large areas of grass on them. There’s roughly 2 square kilometres of grass at Heathrow. Let’s suppose that we use all of that area to grow oil-seed rape instead. We could use that crop to fuel TWO full-range flights of a smallish long-haul airliner each year. About a quarter of a million planes take off from Heathrow annually.
I despair at the refusal of people (often privileged Westerners such as myself) to face up to reality when it comes to flying or transport more generally.
Yes, but… (1)
…isn’t this an unrealistically pessimistic calculation? We won’t necessarily be using dedicated fuel crops for aviation. For example, there are other crop residues that we could use to provide fuels.
About 70% of the land area of the UK is devoted to agriculture, about a third of which is arable land: roughly 60 000 square kilometres. So if we used the whole lot for growing oil-seed rape, it looks doubtful that we’d keep Heathrow in jet fuel, even allowing for the facts that not every flight is long-haul and that not all planes take off with full tanks. But if, instead of using a crop optimised for oil production, we use the wastes from crops optimised for food production, the land requirement must increase hugely. And don’t forget that some of those wastes already have uses.
…can’t we grow the fuels elsewhere and import them?
I haven’t done any sums here. But remember that other countries are likely to want to produce biofuels for their own aviation industries.
There’s a table here showing the annual yield of various crops from which we can produce oil. The yields vary from 147 kg of oil per hectare per year for maize, to 1000 kg/ha/yr for oil-seed rape (common in the UK), to 5000 kg/ha/yr for the highly controversial oil palm. I will assume that the oil can be converted to jet fuel with 100% efficiency.
Taking the smallest plane and the highest-yielding oil crop, the annual land requirement is
hectares per flight.
If we use oil-seed rape instead, the resulting land area is 100 hectares per flight.