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Environmentalist lobbies thwart the use of palm oil as sustainable aviation fuel

Singapore's Sustainable Air Hub Blueprint study focuses on how the city state might profitably introduce costly "sustainable aviation fuel" (SAF) as other fossil fuels are criminalised.

For the moment the strategy appears to be to stockpile as much SAF as one can domestically use, just enough of it participate in the "green lane" but not enough to create a prohibitive expense.

Policies in Europe and the United States are aimed at providing certainty about long-term demand for SAF while improving the business case for its use.

SAF, which is made from waste materials such as used cooking oil, animal fats and other residues, has been touted as the most promising near-term solution to reduce carbon emissions generated by aviation, but it costs three to five times more than regular jet fuel.

Speaking at the inaugural Sustainable Aviation Fuels Investment Summit in Detroit, Singaporean Transport Minister S Iswaran warned against “feedstock nationalism”, referring to countries restricting the export of raw materials that are used to produce SAF to protect domestic industries.

The minister, while in Detroit to attend the three-day 11th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Transportation Ministerial Meeting, met his counterparts from various countries, including US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and China’s vice-minister of transport Wang Gang.

Mr Iswaran suggested developing supply chains and strengthening international and industry collaboration to scale up the adoption of green jet fuel.

He said Singapore was working closely with international and regional organisations to study how the Asean trading bloc can tap potential SAF feedstock within its region.

While he did not directly mention the use of palm oil in the production of SAF – a practice that has drawn criticism from environmental groups – Mr Iswaran said that there are abundant SAF feedstocks in Asia-Pacific region that may not be as widely accepted due to perceived higher environmental risks.

Not surprisingly, the rainforestrescue.org people are adamantly opposed to palm oil as eco-fuel.

"In Malaysia and Indonesia – the biggest exporters of palm oil – the habitat of orangutans and other endangered wildlife is being destroyed to make room for industrial plantations," say rainforest rescuers. "Tropical forests and peatland are being clear-cut, emitting vast amounts of CO2. Plantation companies routinely violate the human rights of indigenous peoples and workers, and land grabbing and forced labour are commonplace.

"Palm oil is not renewable energy," continues their website position paper. "It not only harms tropical forests and their inhabitants, it’s also terrible for the global climate: in terms of CO2 emissions, palm oil biofuel is dirtier than coal.

"The European Union is phasing out palm oil as a source of energy by 2030," they said. "Exporters such as Indonesia and Malaysia are therefore searching for new markets – and targeting Japan. The country needs an alternative to nuclear power after the catastrophe in Fukushima 2011 and is welcoming palm oil. The Japanese government is willing to greenwash the tropical oil by trusting the industry label RSPO [Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil]."

But Mr Iswaran made a plea for more research to determine the degree of validity such determinations made by eco-partisans.

“We think it is most important to establish a scientifically driven process to validate the sustainability of feedstock,” he said.

Mr Iswaran also cited the importance of supporting research and development into more nascent SAF production technologies, such as power-to-liquid technology. This process uses renewable energy to combine hydrogen molecules with carbon extracted from the atmosphere or industrial waste gas to produce synthetic jet fuel.

In addition, he called for policies on SAF use and accounting to be harmonised and for a mutually recognised set of common standards, citing the “aviation green lanes” that Singapore is seeking to develop with the United States, Japan and New Zealand.

“If we do not have that, then we really will have a patchwork of solutions around the world. For airlines and industry players, I think this is going to be a challenge,” he said.

Mr Iswaran also pointed out the need to work closely with the industry, given that SAF production is still a relatively new field.

In this respect, he gave the example of Finnish energy giant Neste and its expanded refinery in Singapore, which has the capacity to produce up to a million tonnes of SAF per year.

“This is a significant move – by no means sufficient, but definitely necessary,” Mr Iswaran said.

Looking for a succinct assessment of the costs and benefits of the carbon craze, one is disappointed turning to Google. First, the short forms that do exist are not objective but partisan. What's more, those suggesting more costs than benefits are few in number, typically coming up as a ratio of 1:5.

Despite the bias of the Google search engine, it could not conceal the fact that the singular cost summary on costs was far meatier than the several terse, repetitive, and questionable summaries of the alleged benefits.

On costs, one says: "Economies do not stand still and some sectors will benefit while others, like oil and gas extraction, will decline. These changes will have implications for jobs and training. By reaching net zero emissions the risks of climate change and associated negative impacts on the economy will be reduced."

So even when asked for costs, the Google answer skews itself toward benefits.

The benefits of net zero prompted repetitive reasons. The big difference was that the costs were to be paid in the immediate future because the criminalising of long-legal jobs while the benefits were lay in the somewhere over the rainbow in the hazy future.

Benefits included "less environmental pollution and improvements to health. A boost to sustainable economic growth and the creation of green jobs. Enhanced food security by lessening the impact of climate change."

Another list of benefits came in bullet points:

"A positive impact on climate.
"Economic growth and job creation opportunities.
"Increased energy security and resilience.
"Protecting the environment and natural resources.
"Operational benefits.
"Types of nature-based solutions.

More repetitive benefits were seen as simply raising taxes and increasing the state's role in life.

"Some uses of revenues from carbon taxation include rebates in the form of cheques or tax credits, additional spending on climate change resilience projects or programmes that reduce emissions through other methods and deficit reduction."

While Mr Iswaran, the Singaporean Minister of Transport, is to be praised for wanting more scientific evidence before banning palm oil as a sustainable aviation fuel, one would hope that he and his government - indeed the sensible governments of the world, which grow fewer in number, would demand a broader enquiry into the scientific sustainability of sustainability itself.

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Singapore is betting that the use of palm oil as a major feedstock in the production of sustainable aviation fuel is the most promising methods of solving the problem. Environmentalists say No. How do you feel?

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Europe Trade Specialists

Nippon Express (HK) Co., Ltd.
Visible & Strategic Logistics