(photo: Royal Academy of Engineering)
Thu 20 July 2017 – A viable second generation liquid biofuel industry and market has a significant role in helping to meet UK long-term carbon reduction goals, particularly in sectors like aviation where alternative low-carbon options are not available. So concludes a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering commissioned by the UK’s transport and energy government departments, DfT and BEIS. Aviation – along with shipping and heavy goods vehicles – should be considered a priority for the development and use of biofuels, it recommends. While there has been growth in the contribution of biofuels to road transport in the UK under the government’s Renewable Fuels Transport Obligation (RTFO), although production has stagnated over the past eight years, little progress has been made in aviation and even less in shipping. An immediate priority, says the Academy, is for government to incentivise the development of second generation biofuels such as those derived from wastes and agricultural, forest and sawmill residues.
“Second generation biofuels offer real prospects for the UK to make progress in reducing emissions from transport, particularly in sectors like aviation where liquid fuels are really the only option for the foreseeable future,” said Professor Adisa Azapagic, Chair of the Academy’s working group on biofuels. “Our report shows that with the right safeguards and monitoring, biofuels from waste in particular are well worth pursuing from a sustainability point of view and also provide business opportunities for development.”
While the report is enthusiastic in its support, subject to strict sustainability criteria, for second generation, also called advanced, biofuels, it acknowledges the controversial nature of first generation biofuels has led to lukewarm government support for biofuels in general.
“Gauging the sustainability of liquid biofuels is a complex undertaking. However, complexity is no excuse for inaction as liquid biofuels will be needed if the UK’s ambitious decarbonisation targets are to be met,” it says. “The Academy’s work on future energy systems shows that all possible low-carbon technologies and fuels will be needed to reach 80% carbon reduction by 2050, as legislated in the Climate Change Act.”
Moves should be made in the short term to transition from first generation biofuels – those derived from food or animal feed crops – by setting a cap on their supply to reduce the risk of indirect land-use change, and disincentivise feedstocks that have the potential to drive unsustainable land-use change, primarily deforestation and peat land drainage.
Instead, second generation biofuels, including in the future dedicated energy crops, should be incentivised under the RTFO, including a double-counting mechanism by which the use of such fuels receives double credits by volume towards RTFO and the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive targets. Incentives to use marginal land which is unsuitable for food production should also be employed where possible, particularly if soil-carbon stocks can be restored through use.
The Academy also suggests the government should consider different incentive bands for second generation biofuels that are in an earlier stage of development and require a greater incentive.
The report also recommends improvements should be made to the life-cycle assessment of biofuels, more robust auditing of sustainability, development of a risk-based approach to biofuels and strengthening sustainability governance across the different sectors that biofuels are a part of.
Lastly, it suggests the government should take a more active role in engaging with the public on this issue. “Key areas of debate that need to be drawn out include food security, the relationship between investment in agriculture and investment in biofuels, as well as the need to develop biofuels for key transport sectors – road freight, shipping and aviation – that lack other low-carbon options,” concludes the ‘Sustainability of liquid biofuels’ report.
Introduced in 2008, the RTFO places an obligation on suppliers of more than 450,000 litres of fuel per year to ensure a certain percentage of the fuel supplied is renewable and operates as a certificate trading scheme. The current blending percentage is 4.75% and the Academy recommends the level should be increased. In a two-month consultation that started in November 2016, the UK government proposed raising the RTFO in equal steps to 9.75% (by volume) in 2020. To encourage the use of low-carbon fuels in aviation, the government also proposed to reward such fuels under the RTFO, which previously was restricted to road transport. There would not be an obligation to supply a certain level of fuel but suppliers would be able to claim certificates (RTFCs) for eligible fuel.
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