Action needed for biofuels to mean business, argues Academy

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Action needed for biofuels to mean business, argues Academy
Credit: Shutterstock.com/ Meryll

Biofuels have a role to play in meeting the UK’s commitments to climate change mitigation, according to a major new review by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Such fuels can be sustainable and could make a real impact in reducing carbon emissions, although action is needed to manage the risks involved, improve traceability and avoid fraudulent practice.

The report, Sustainability of liquid biofuels, was commissioned by the Department of Transport and the Department of Energy and Climate Change to provide advice on the UK’s future strategy for the development of biofuels.

While they have been enthusiastically adopted in some countries, notably Brazil, first generation biofuels manufactured from crops like corn have proved controversial.

There have been concerns that increased demand for crops drives the conversion of land to agriculture, with the consequent risks of an increase in deforestation, drainage of peatlands, loss of biodiversity, as well as associated usage of freshwater, fertilisers and pesticides.

The report finds that we now understand much more about what specific crops and regions pose a high risk of land-use change and how these risks can be managed, and it sees a continued role for biofuels from some agricultural feedstocks.

However, it also calls on government to incentivise the development of second generation biofuels in the UK, in the first instance those derived from wastes and agricultural, forest and sawmill residues.

These might include converting waste cooking oil, municipal solid waste, the dregs from whisky manufacture or even fatbergs – the bane of sewer management companies – into useful fuel.

Growing energy crops is also recommended, particularly where it can be done on marginal land that is unsuitable for food production, housing or has been degraded through deforestation. These sources of biofuel can most effectively avoid the risk of land use change and more generally make use of biomass and land areas that would otherwise have little or no value.

However, it is vital that the sector is properly regulated with clear and consistent categorisation of wastes and residues to help avoid unintended market distortions within the UK and internationally.

Accreditation standards are currently voluntary and while some bodies such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomass have developed comprehensive standards covering social, economic and environmental aspects, much of the industry works to minimum standards.

The Academy wishes to see more comprehensive requirements imposed on issues such as traceability to guard against fraud. Requirements should also cover social and economic impacts such as labour conditions.

In a bid to meet the EU target of 10% by 2020, fuel suppliers are already blending biofuels into the petrol and diesel we use in our road transport, up to a level of 4.75%.

The Academy recommends increasing the level of biofuels required under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation in order to help meet climate change mitigation targets. This will also drive the development of the sector and help it develop the fuels needed to decarbonise particularly challenging sectors such as aviation, shipping and haulage, where there are few other low-carbon options.