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A policy for all generations: How advanced biofuels can help the EU live up to its climate ambitions

08/02/2018

The International Energy Agency’s latest Technology Roadmap is unequivocal in declaring that the world needs to step up its game when it comes to fighting climate change – and that greatly increasing consumption of biofuels is essential to success.

The IEA says that if there is any hope at all for meeting global climate ambitions, governments need to do more to encourage the development of renewable fuels such as ethanol, which when blended with petrol delivers significant greenhouse-gas emission reduction over fossil fuel. The report’s authors say the transport sector’s biofuels consumption must triple by 2030 in order for the world to meet the “2-degree scenario” in the fight against climate change. Two-thirds of that increase, they write, should come from advanced biofuels and notably from cellulosic ethanol.

They also point out that “conventional” or first-generation biofuels will continue to have an important contribution to make while the massive scale-up of advanced technology is under way. For example, today’s ethanol consumption – mainly first-generation – is a key enabler for cellulosic ethanol market access.

Cellulosic ethanol, made from plant waste and residues of agricultural crops, is an important technology that is gaining increasing attention as the world looks to combat climate change and boost renewable energy sources in transport. Referred to alternately in policy discussions as an “advanced” or “2nd generation” biofuel, cellulosic ethanol has huge promise as a sustainable, low-carbon transport fuel.

There are several commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants in operation around the world, and the industry has shown significant advances in 2017. Even though two companies recently announced they would leave the industry, mainly due to unrelated business considerations, others opened or announced new plants in places like Slovakia, Romania, the U.K., Brazil, Canada and the U.S.

Around the world, demand for cellulosic ethanol is also increasing as policy frameworks develop – even if they are doing so at different speeds.

China, Brazil, the U.S., and India all have policies in place or in the works to promote ethanol production including cellulosic ethanol – all aimed to boost renewable fuel consumption and reduce carbon emissions.

In Europe, the industry continues to mature along with the EU policy framework (RED II) – in other words, with some bumps in the road. Many member states have or will implement specific cellulosic ethanol mandates such as Finland, Italy, Denmark, France, Germany and Slovakia.

But at EU level, unfortunately, a threat looms that could slow progress even further. Even as the European Commission says it wants to promote second-generation biofuels like cellulosic ethanol, it is at the same time pushing to eliminate high-performing first-generation biofuels. Instead of focusing on cutting bad biofuels like palm oil it is also going after sustainably produced ones like EU crop-based ethanol, which delivers on average 66% greenhouse gas reduction over fossil fuel.

Any new technology takes time to develop. It also takes commitment from policymakers, which in turn can provide the stability that investors look for.

Instead of creating further uncertainty, the EU should push policies that expand deployment of existing technologies, commercialise new technologies, develop sustainable supply chains and appropriate sustainability governance systems, and build technical and regulatory capacity in a much wider range of countries and regions.

But more generally, Europe also needs to send a clear signal that in the fight against climate change it is willing to embrace all sustainable options that work and get past generational questions.

It’s the same with biofuels as it is with people: the success of the next generation depends on this one.