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10-11-2010 / 11:17 PM

When Swedish utility giant Vattenfall announced that the new heat and power station it was going to build in Berlin, would burn wood instead of coal everybody thought that this is an excellent idea. Today many people aren’t that sure any more, because they have learned that the one million tons of wood pellets would not come from German forests but from Liberia. In the African country wood is an important energy resource for poor people, so environmentalists are concerned, that German hunger for carbon neutral energy might make firewood unaffordable for ordinary people in Africa.

This example demonstrates that protecting world climate can be a tricky thing. As in any complex system you have always to be aware of unexpected side effects.

The aviation industry needs to be careful not to fall in the same kind of trap. Achieving the ambitious goal of carbon neutral growth by 2020 requires besides advancements in fuel efficiency the use of 2nd generation bio fuels made from Jatropa, Camelina or Salicornia until algae based fuels become available. The good news is that producing theses feedstock doesn’t interfere with food production, because it grows on soil which can’t be used for traditional agricultural crop.

On the other hand even Jatropa, the most productive bio fuel source available, needs about three hectares (75 acres) for producing 10.000 litres per year. In order to make it available in meaningful quantities will require large scale farming. In most cases this means monocultures, which have their own ecological downsides. Plus there will be a significant impact on the socioeconomic side.

All this needs to be considered in an early stage in order to mitigate risks and to maximize the benefits for both the global airline industry and the economies in third world countries. For them this can be a source of valuable foreign currency. But Bio fuels will only be accepted by the public, when they are produced in a social acceptable and sustainable way.

The best experts on assessing the social and ecological impact of projects like this are certain NGOs. Airbus, Boeing, the engine manufacturers and all other working to secure the future of aviation, would be well advised to get them on board early. Experience from other industries shows, that it is usually smarter to discuss these aspects early, than to do damage containment later.

Just ask Vattenfall about their Berlin experience.

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