Give biofuels a chance

There has been a huge amount of debate in the media about biofuels in 2007. Here, Clare Wenner from the REA explains why she firmly believes that biofuels have an important role to play in mitigating climate change and why they are currently one of the few options available to the road transport sector

Biofuels are “likely to play a significant and growing role in road transport” according to the UK Government-commissioned King Review which looks at ways to reduce emissions from road transport. The Department for Transport says: “Evidence suggests that sustainable biofuels can offer significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared with fossil fuels and so represent an opportunity to address climate change. Other potential benefits include the promotion of energy security and diversity of supply and new opportunities for rural and developing economies.”  The European Union states: “The EU is supporting biofuels with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, boosting the decarbonisation of transport fuels, diversifying fuel supply sources, offering new income opportunities in rural areas and developing long-term replacements for fossil fuel.”   

So what has happened in the last year to turn biofuels from a positive contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in road transport, into apparently being single-handedly responsible for destroying the world’s rainforests, starving the world’s poor and adding greatly to the problems of climate change? For all sorts of reasons, not least the desire to sell a good story, the media coverage seems to have become progressively more inaccurate and misinformed, which is why I would like to address some of the myths surrounding biofuels.   

Major studies and research show that biofuel produces considerably less greenhouse gas than fossil fuel, contrary to what is so often reported in the press. In simple terms, biofuels save carbon because the CO2 that is emitted into the atmosphere when they are burned is offset by the carbon already absorbed by the natural resource used to make the biofuel.  In this sense they are different from fossil fuels, which emit historic carbon into the atmosphere, which has been locked away under the earth's surface for millions of years.    

Later this month British Sugar will open the UK’s first bioethanol factory, which will make ethanol from UK sugar beet  and which will also be one of Europe’s most state-of-the-art biofuel factories. The ethanol produced here will return greenhouse gas savings of 60 per cent over its life compared to petrol. Such significant greenhouse gas savings are not unusual if renewable energy in the factory is used through the use of combined heat and power (CHP) for example, as is the case in the British Sugar factory.   

Backing this is up is work done for the Government by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership (LowCVP), demonstrating that UK-produced ethanol from wheat can save as little as 7 per cent or as much as 77 per cent carbon compared with petrol, depending on the energy practices employed within the factory.   

The Government estimates that if all petrol and diesel sold in the UK contained just 5 per cent biofuel, this would save almost one million tonnes of carbon per year, which would be equivalent to taking one million cars off the road. You do not need modified or purpose-built vehicles to run on 5 per cent biofuel blends and there is no change or investment required in the refueling infrastructure, meaning that this fuel can be introduced quickly, economically and without major structural upheaval.   

Road transport in the UK and across the EU is already responsible for around 25 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions and this is expected to rise as vehicle numbers and usage increases. The King Review Government study, to which I have already referred, makes this prediction: “Traffic is currently growing in the UK at the rate of about 1 per cent per year. If this were to continue at a similar rate up to 2050, the number of kilometres driven each year would almost double. In order to reduce emissions from cars to 20 per cent of 2000 levels we would actually need to achieve a 90 per cent reduction in per-kilometre emissions by 2050 to offset the effect of traffic growth.”   

It is for these reasons that we must act now and start recognising the contribution that biofuels can make. Last month, MPs did just that by voting for the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which will require all fuel suppliers in the UK to make sure that by 2010, 5 per cent of the fuel they sell is biofuel. The RTFO will also put in place stringent sustainability and low-CO2 criteria, requiring fuel suppliers to demonstrate the carbon saving their biofuel offers, that it was produced in a sustainable manner and that its production did not entail unacceptable land use changes or labour practices. In the Government’s own words,  “the introduction of the RTFO will deliver significant and immediate carbon savings from the transport sector”.   

To sum up, I would say that whilst it is of course possible to produce biofuels badly, either in an energy-inefficient manner or through the irresponsible sourcing of raw materials, it is also possible to produce them extremely efficiently, saving vast amounts of carbon in the process. Overall, the long-term benefits of biofuels far outweigh the negative impacts that have too often been exaggerated in the British media. The technology, expertise and know-how behind biofuels is improving all the time, so please - let’s not shoot them down in their maiden flight.

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