Big decisions ahead for scaling up sustainable biofuels


Decarbonising the transport sector—which accounts for a third of global energy demand and 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions—is vital to combatting climate change. Electric vehicle fleets are growing exponentially, and their emissions will decline as more and more power is generated by renewables, but decades will pass before the majority of the cars in the world are electric. Heavy freight, marine and aviation transport, which together account for nearly a third of transport demand, are hard to electrify. Liquid biofuels from sustainable feedstocks are therefore key to decarbonising the transport sector.

The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) comes into effect next year, with more than 70 countries volunteering to supply half of all fuel for international aviation from biofuel by 2050. In April, countries under the International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by half by 2050, on a path to zero emissions by the end of the century.

But the long-term transformation of domestic aviation and shipping, which do not come under these international initiatives, will require action by individual countries. In Europe, the world’s largest producer and consumer of biodiesel, these sectors received little specific policy support in the Renewable Energy Directive, though a proposed revision currently under discussion between EC, parliament and European Council provides a greater incentive for the use of biofuels in aviation than previously.

In the United States, the Renewable Fuel Standard has focused mainly on amounts of biofuels to be produced for blending with fossil fuels in cars, though the 2016 Billion Ton Report from the US Department of Energy finds that the US has could produce at least one billion tonnes of biomass per year without adverse environmental impact, and a target was put in place in March to produce 21 billion gallons of advanced biofuels per year. A recent study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that a 30% penetration of aviation biofuels in the US is possible by 2030 under aggressive policy and investment scenarios.

Agreeing on a way forward

How to meet the longer-term challenges was discussed at the conference, “The role of low carbon fuels in decarbonising transport: the emerging consensus from international initiatives", held by ARTFuels, Below 50, Biofuture Platform, European Commission and IRENA in Brussels in April. Despite the multi-faceted nature of the challenges, a set of agreed messages emerged.  

For one, there is little doubt that bioenergy is a vital component of efforts to decarbonise energy production and limit global temperature rise. IRENA’s analyses show that renewable energy could provide about a third of EU energy needs in 2030 in a cost-effective fashion, and more than a half of this could come from bioenergy options. This would mean a doubling of bioenergy use by 2030 compared to 2010 levels in Europe.  Globally, a combination of low-carbon technologies can cut transport emissions by 70% compared to the reference case by 2050.

Our REmap analysis shows that renewable energy share could provide nearly a third of EU energy needs in 2030 in a cost-effective fashion.  Biomass in buildings and biodiesel in transport would reduce costs, while biomass for power and district heating, advanced ethanol from lignocellulosic sources and biokerosene (biojet) could all be introduced at a cost of less than USD12 per GJ.

Conference participants also agreed that large volumes of feedstock for biofuels can be provided sustainably, without impeding food production or releasing carbon through land-use change. A combination of smart agricultural practices, waste and residue policies, high-yield energy crops and the reclamation of degraded or fallow land can provide both the volumes and the high-quality carbon emissions reductions that the world needs. Previous IRENA analysis has documented the large potential for gathering agricultural and forestry residues and for planting high-yield energy crops while ensuring affordable food production.  

Moreover, the Brussels conference found that the most effective way to reduce the costs and carbon emissions of biofuels is to reward reductions in carbon emissions per unit of energy produced. The preferred approach is to assess and stimulate those feedstocks that have higher yields and those processes that are the most efficient in terms of cost, energy, and carbon.

Brazil’s recently-launched national biofuels policy, RenovaBio, which “aims to recognize the strategic role of all types of biofuels in the national energy matrix”, is an excellent example of this approach. RenovaBio has been lauded for its alignment with the Paris Agreement and will significantly boost domestic demand and investment in biofuels, generating an estimated one million jobs along the value chain by 2030. It calls for certification of biofuel greenhouse gas emission reductions through the issuance of decarbonisation credits. The credits can be traded as financial assets on a stock exchange, giving emissions reductions a value in the marketplace.

Against the background of the EU Renewable Energy Directive, which has different proposed targets for food- and non-food-based biofuels, the conference found that regulatory distinctions between conventional (food crop-based) and advanced (non-food crop-based) biofuels may impede the development of high-performance biofuels that fall into both categories. For example, new varieties of energy cane, which doubles sugar cane biomass yields, can sharply reduce both costs and land use, yet has both food (sugar) and nonfood components.  Since support for biofuels in the EU has been limited by concerns over indirect land use change (ILUC), the conference recommended that regulations promote “options with low risk of ILUC, such as biofuels made from farm or forest residues, feedstocks grown on degraded land, or feedstocks with very high yields.”

Perhaps most importantly, the conference found that predictable, long-term policy support will be required to ensure bioenergy scale-up. Investment in biofuels has declined sharply since peaking in 2008. Sustained support for innovative conversion technologies will be key to the cost-effective production of biofuels from feedstocks like wood and crop residues, since production cost of these technologies can fall significantly once several pilot plants are built. Market measures such as carbon prices or volumetric targets, which aim to ensure a level playing field, may be needed to ensure the scale-up of renewable marine and aviation fuels if oil prices remain near current levels.

Cooperation is key

The final finding of the Brussels conference is that international collaboration can accelerate sustainable bioenergy uptake.  It can help countries build consensus on the environmental, social and economic sustainability of bioenergy and its contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement. IRENA, which specifically focuses on resources, technologies and scaleup strategies for liquid biofuels in its work programme, is an important vehicle for such cooperation.  The Biofuture Platform, a global multi-stakeholder mechanism to accelerate development and deployment of modern biofuels, is another vital forum.