Reboot global debate on biofuels

Tackling climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face and ethanol has a vital role to play in global decarbonizing transport, writes Robert Wright. This column appears in the January issue of EPM.
By Robert Wright | December 21, 2015

The global media landscape these past few weeks has been dominated by coverage of world leaders meeting at Paris Climate Summit to agree on measures to address climate change. COP21 an excellent opportunity to reboot the debate about biofuels, and ethanol in particular, and begin a discussion on how to best capture their genuine ability to play a positive role in the fight against climate change.

Tackling climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face. Unless we take decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, there is little hope of limiting damaging rises in global temperatures. Achieving the GHG reductions that are needed to stay below a 2-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures will require substantial emission reductions in the transport sector.

Today, global transport emissions have increased to 14 percent of the world’s GHG emissions and about a quarter of the total energy-related CO2 emissions. With the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting transport emissions could double by 2050, the need for preventative policy measures by world leaders is clear and urgent.

It was therefore reassuring that 36 countries had, in their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions plans, highlighted biofuels use as a key component of their climate action policies. Sixty-four countries worldwide, including the European Union, U.S. and Brazil, already have policies mandating the use of biofuels, but more need to do so.

Decarbonizing global transport is a huge task, because it is more than 95 percent dependent on oil. We therefore need to find ways of making the existing vehicles, including planes and ships, and infrastructure cleaner. It will undoubtedly be a huge challenge but, according to the IPCC, transport’s growing emissions could be cut by 15 to 40 percent through “aggressive and sustained” policy measures, including reducing the carbon intensity of transport fuels by substituting oil-based products with biofuels. This can be achieved, and sustainably.

According to the International Energy Agency, by 2050, sustainably produced biofuels could provide 27 percent of the world’s total transport fuel and avoid around 2.1 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions per year, eventually providing 23 percnet of total emission reductions in the transport sector. This is the emissions reduction potential of biofuels that needs to be realized. But the potential can only be realized if policy frameworks at national, regional and global level are stronger, more stable and more ambitious.

Ethanol has a vital role to play in global decarbonizing transport because it is the most used biofuel globally and can achieve GHG emissions reductions of between 40 to 90 percent compared to petrol. Because it can be blended with petrol, and used in existing petrol engines, it also allows us to decarbonize the current fleet without needing to replace existing vehicles and infrastructure. It is clean, affordable, and here today. I’m not saying that ethanol is a silver bullet, but it is one of the main technologies that can play an important role in decarbonizing transport.

Ethanol is already helping the world to reduce its carbon emissions. Just this week, the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance, in cooperation with (S&T)2 Consultants Inc., released a new report which found that, in 2014, the total GHG emission reductions from global ethanol use were 100 million metric tons—equivalent to the total national GHG emissions of Sweden and Norway combined. The report predicts that even under a conservative, business-as-usual scenario, the total GHG emission savings achieved from global ethanol use could rise to 155 million metric tons in 2030.

Along with their climate benefits, biofuels are a key part of the global agricultural complex, facilitating rural development and supporting food production, particularly in poorer regions. Our industry is a key driver of clean technology innovation and investment but we constantly recognize the need to innovate even further. One way we can do this is through investment in advanced biofuels, which are produced from wastes and residues.

Ethanol is just one of the technologies that will play an important role in the fight against climate change. But unlike other solutions, it is ready to use today—here and now—and at scale. With ethanol, we can make an immediate impact on reducing global transport emissions. So let’s make that impact.

Author: Robert Wright
Secretary General,
ePURE, the European Renewable Ethanol Association