The latest “roadmap” report from the International Energy Agency cuts through a lot of the misinformation in the current debate on biofuels, and especially over whether Europe should abandon so-called “conventional” biofuels in favour of “advanced.”
The short answer is: we need both. That’s because, as the IEA report’s authors point out, 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. While they note that two-thirds of that increase should come from advanced biofuels and notably from cellulosic ethanol, they also point out that “conventional” or first-generation biofuels also have an important contribution to make while the massive scale-up of advanced technology is under way. For example, the ethanol consumption at high levels is noted to be a key enabler for cellulosic ethanol market access.
The report also notes that the labels themselves can be misleading: “For example, the overall GHG performance of some conventional biofuels; can, under certain circumstances, be at least as good as that of some ‘advanced biofuels’,” it states.
Instead of getting bogged down in such either-or debates, the IEA authors write, decisions on the desirability of biofuels – whether first- or second-generation – should be “based on the actual GHG performance of specific routes from feedstock to energy, rather than a classification based on feedstocks or technologies.” In other words, look beyond the labels and focus on what is delivering real GHG reductions. On that score, renewable EU ethanol meets all the requirements to be an essential part of the low-carbon future.
Among the available solutions suitable for immediate scale up is the introduction of higher ethanol blends (E20-E40, E85 and ED 95 for heavy-duty vehicles). This solution would allow for maximising GHG emissions reduction while improving the octane rating of the fuel. It is also noted that, if domestically produced, fuel ethanol supports energy security, the coproduction of high-protein animal feed products and agricultural employment.
The IEA is just the latest international agency to highlight the need for sustainable biofuels in decarbonising transport. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has also pointed to ethanol as an important low-carbon fuel.