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RAE report says biofuels have a role to play in future UK energy mix

Fri 14 July 2017 | Back to news list

A new report from the Royal Academy of Engineering says that biofuels have a role to play in meeting the UK's climate commitments, especially those made from wastes and residues. The Academy warns, however, that while such fuels can be sustainable and make a real positive impact, this has not always been the case so far and that action is needed to manage the risks involved, improve traceability and avoid fraudulent practice.
The report - Sustainability of Liquid Biofuels, was commissioned by the Department of Transport and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) to provide advice on the UK’s future strategy for the development of biofuels. On the impacts to date the report says that some biofuels, such as diesel made from food crops, have led to more emissions than those produced by the fossil fuels they were meant to replace. 
The LowCVP has long championed the need to develop robust sustainability criteria applicable to the long-term use of biofuels and has several projects in this area including the Partnership's Framework for Low Carbon Sustainable Biofuels. The LowCVP's Fuels Working Group is particularly active in this area.
While biofuels have been enthusiastically adopted in some countries, notably Brazil, first generation biofuels manufactured from crops like corn have proved controversial. There have been concerns that increased demand for crops drives the conversion of land to agriculture, with the consequent risks of an increase in deforestation, drainage of peatlands, loss of biodiversity, as well as associated usage of freshwater, fertilisers and pesticides.
The Academy report finds that we now understand much more about what specific crops and regions pose a high risk of land-use change and how these risks can be managed, and it sees a continued role for biofuels from some agricultural feedstocks.
However, the report calls on government to incentivise the development of second generation biofuels in the UK, in the first instance those derived from wastes and agricultural, forest and sawmill residues. These might include converting waste cooking oil, municipal solid waste, the dregs from whisky manufacture and sewage wastes into useful fuel.
Growing energy crops is potentially beneficial it says, particularly where it can be done on marginal land that is unsuitable for food production, housing or has been degraded through deforestation. These sources of biofuel can most effectively avoid the risk of land use change and more generally make use of biomass and land areas that would otherwise have little or no value.
However, it is vital that the sector is properly regulated with clear and consistent categorisation of wastes and residues to help avoid unintended market distortions within the UK and internationally. Accreditation standards are currently voluntary and while some bodies such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomass have developed comprehensive standards covering social, economic and environmental aspects, much of the industry works to minimum standards. 
Professor Adisa Azapagic FREng, Chair of the Academy’s working group on biofuels, said: “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. 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.”

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