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Biofuels can be sustainable, claims IEA

Manufacturers have been keen to promote the latest breakthroughs in electric-vehicle technology in recent months

Manufacturers have been keen to promote the latest breakthroughs in electric-vehicle technology in recent months. But the International Energy Agency (IEA) wants to remind the world that the internal-combustion engine will remain king for the foreseeable future – and that means improved biofuels must play a significant role if the world is to cut carbon emissions from the transport sector.

In its latest report, Biofuels for Transport*, the industrialised world’s energy think-tank said global biofuels consumption could be increased in a sustainable manner using next-generation technologies to account for 27% of global transport fuels by 2050, compared with just 2% now. That would mean boosting supply to 750 million tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) a year from 55 million toe today.

To achieve that target, the IEA said between $11 trillion and $13 trillion must be invested in the sector over the next 40 years. It added that, with such large-scale investment, the cost of biofuel technologies could draw close to, or even fall below, those for fossil fuels.

“This figure may seem large, but even in the worst case, biofuels would increase the total costs of transport fuels by only around 1% over the next 40 years and could lead to cost reductions over the same period,” said Bo Diczfalusy, director of sustainable energy policy and technology at the agency.

While improvements in vehicle efficiency remain the most important and cost-efficient way to reduce transport emissions, Diczfalusy said biofuels will still be needed to provide low-carbon fuel alternatives for aeroplanes, marine vessels and other heavy transport. Biofuels will eventually provide one-fifth of emission reductions in the transport sector, equivalent to 2.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Biofuels produce few greenhouse gases when they are burnt in vehicles, but critics of increased usage say CO2 emissions generated in the growing and processing of biofuel crops; the transport of the finished product; and with the pressure biofuels crops place on land resources, mean the technology is not viable.

Far removed from reality

Environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth describes the plan as being so far removed from present day reality in the industry as to be “ridiculous”. In another report published in April, the UK’s Nuffield Council on Bioethics concluded that biofuels policies had “backfired badly” leading to deforestation and displacement of people from the land.

But the IEA maintains that biofuels production can be sustainable. “The report shows how global biofuel consumption can increase in a sustainable way – one in which production of biofuels brings significant life-cycle environmental benefits and does not compromise food security,” the agency said.

Doing that requires overcoming a number of obstacles. The use of fossil fuels during cultivation, transport and conversion of biomass to biofuel must be reduced. Land-use changes to produce biofuels, such as converting forests to grow biofuel feedstocks, should be avoided, as that releases CO2 into the atmosphere.

Another crucial component will be rapid introduction of next-generation biofuel technologies, now being demonstrated, which must provide the lion’s share of biofuels supply by 2050. These methods, notably production from lignocellulosic biomass, such as wood and straw, must be commercially deployed within the next 10 years if that target is to be met, the report concluded.

Government action is essential to provide a long-term policy framework that allows for sustained investment in biofuel expansion, Diczfalusy said, including specific support measures to help investors overcome reluctance to invest in what are regarded as high-risk new technologies.

*Biofuels for Transport:

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