UK airlines’ new ‘sustainable’ fuels may be causing deforestation in Asia
Exclusive: Experts fear lack of industry regulation means virgin palm oil is being passed off as ‘used’ cooking oil
The “greenwashing” efforts of UK airlines may be contributing to the destruction of rainforests in Asia, openDemocracy can reveal.
The aviation industry began boasting of using ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ (SAF) last year. It claims this will help it to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 because it is made from ‘waste and residue’ materials and can produce 80% less emissions than fossil jet fuel.
But government data reveals that more than 80% of the 26 million litres of SAF supplied to airlines in the UK last year was made from imported “used cooking oil”. Most came from countries in Asia, where its authenticity has been questioned.
The highest proportion of SAF came from Malaysia, which supplied seven million litres to the UK. In 2020, Malaysian firms exported more ‘used’ cooking oil to Britain and Ireland than was actually collected in the country, according to an analysis by Farm Europe, a Brussels-based think tank.
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Farm Europe’s findings sparked fears that virgin palm oil – grown on plantations that contribute to tropical deforestation – is being passed off as used oil, as waste products earn double credits under the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO).
The RTFO requires suppliers of road fuel to supply a certain amount of biofuel, but they can meet part of their obligation by supplying aviation fuel.
Other large exporters of SAF to the UK last year were China, which supplied five million litres, and Indonesia, which supplied one million.
The European Biodiesel Board last month said it strongly suspected that a recent surge in imports of biodiesel from China involved fraudulent declarations that the feedstocks were made from waste materials.
Even genuine used cooking oil can indirectly cause deforestation because countries export oil they would otherwise have used and instead use palm oil to meet domestic demand, according to green campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E).
It’s downright odd that airlines would even consider using Asian feedstocks, due to the high chance of burning palm oil in their planes
Last year, two major British airlines boasted of buying SAF in the UK. British Airways stated that it bought “UK-produced” SAF from Phillips 66 refinery in Lincolnshire, purchasing a total of 9,980 tonnes (12.5 million litres), while Virgin Atlantic referred to its “UK supply” of 2.5 million litres of SAF.
When approached by openDemocracy, BA refused to disclose the sources of the SAF it bought. The airline said its SAF was made from “waste biogenic oil, including used cooking oil, from multiple sources predominantly in the UK, Asia and Europe”.
Virgin said its SAF was made entirely from used cooking oil but that it couldn’t name the countries it came from because the information was commercially sensitive. It referred queries to its SAF supplier, Neste, a Finnish refining company.
Neste said 25% of the used cooking oil in Virgin’s SAF came from China and Indonesia, 21% from the UK and the remainder from Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland and Italy.
Matt Finch, UK policy manager of T&E, told openDemocracy: “Airlines already have a really poor environmental track record, so it’s downright odd that they would even consider using Asian feedstocks, due to the high chance of burning palm oil in their planes.”
He added: “Airlines need to recognise they need to be strict with their fuel suppliers, and completely stop using any Asian feedstocks.”
From 2030, the UK government’s ‘SAF mandate’ will require 10% of jet fuel supplied in the UK to come from “sustainable sources”. The mandate is due to be phased in from 2025.
To ensure the sustainability of the SAF, the government plans to rely partly on voluntary certification schemes – despite the EU Court of Auditors ruling in 2016 that these cannot guarantee that all the used cooking oil imported into Europe is actually ‘used’.
The SAF supplied to British Airways and Virgin Atlantic last year was considered sustainable under one such scheme, the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC).
A 2021 Greenpeace investigation found that ISCC, which is governed by an association dominated by traders and processors and other companies in the biomass industry, “relies heavily on self-reporting rather than verification”.
The Greenpeace report added: “Due to weaknesses in governance, standards, transparency, auditing and implementation, this appears as a ‘tick in the box’ scheme that helps to greenwash commodities for biofuels.”
There is a serious risk alternative aviation fuels will do more harm than good to the climate
ISCC announced last month that it would be strengthening its audits after it received evidence of potential fraud involving biodiesel which had been declared as waste from Indonesia or Malaysia and then exported from China to Europe.
The Department for Transport is holding a public consultation on the rules governing the SAF mandate and is proposing to cap the amount of used cooking oil and other waste fats and oils airlines can use to meet their obligation.
It said in the consultation document that those materials were already being used to decarbonise road transport and demand from aviation could “divert feedstock away from existing uses”.
Matt Finch of T&E said existing government guidance on verifying SAF as sustainable is inadequate because there is no requirement to check that ‘used’ cooking oil is actually being collected from restaurants and other venues.
Alethea Warrington, senior campaigner at climate charity Possible, said: “Without robust and transparent processes for certifying alternative aviation fuels, there is a serious risk they will do more harm than good to the climate.
“If airlines can’t be trusted to source alternative fuels sustainably at even the tiny amounts in use today, then they clearly should not be permitted to do this at a much greater scale – and especially not as a justification for dangerous and irresponsible levels of expansion.”
‘A tiny fraction of demand’
Aviation is likely to be the UK’s largest carbon emitter by 2050, the Climate Change Committee, an independent statutory body set up to advise the government on emissions targets, has warned. This is due to rising passenger numbers and other industries decarbonising.
The industry admits that waste oils and fats can replace only a small portion of the fossil fuels it uses. For more than a decade, it has promised to build facilities to make SAF from other sources, including UK household waste, but the projects have been repeatedly delayed.
In December, the Department for Transport announced that five planned SAF plants in the UK would share £165m of public funding to help “make guilt-free flying a reality”.
But Almuth Ernsting of the campaign group Biofuelwatch warned: “Aviation biofuels are a dangerous distraction from the need to reduce airlines’ carbon emissions, which requires ending and reversing the growth in aviation.”
Ernsting added: “Genuine waste and residues suitable for biofuels can only meet a tiny fraction of the existing biofuel demand. So airlines wanting to greenwash their images are either competing with existing users of feedstocks like used cooking oil and causing those to use palm oil or soya instead, or they resort to dodgier feedstock sources themselves.”
Aviation biofuels are a dangerous distraction from the need to reduce airlines’ carbon emissions
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “We carry out strict due diligence when working with suppliers, adhering to sustainable criteria as well as industry regulations with all SAF purchases conforming to the sustainability standards of the RTFO.”
British Airways said: “We recognise the concerns relating to sustainable aviation fuel feedstocks and only work with suppliers committed to meeting independently verified sustainability standards so we’re able to trace the sustainability characteristics of the sustainable aviation fuel we buy through the supply chain.
“We work closely with regulators and suppliers to avoid the risk of palm-derived elements in the sustainable aviation fuel we source and our contracts with suppliers state that any SAF purchased cannot contain palm or palm derivatives.”
Phillips 66 said its biofuels met sustainability criteria set out in the UK Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations Order.
It added: “We ensure this criteria is met by purchasing only those biofuels and renewable feedstocks that are certified by an EU and UK recognised voluntary scheme.”
Neste said: “Neste has developed a robust system to ensure its renewable products, and the raw materials it uses in its production, always meet the legal sustainability requirements set by local authorities in our markets.”
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