World Needs Transport Biofuels

Despite the fact that biofuel technologies are demonstrated to be effective at reducing GHGs and are affordable and immediately available, their adoption remains far below current potential. This article appears in the October print issue of EPM.
By Bliss Baker | September 15, 2016

The summer of 2016 marked an ominous record for global temperature readings.

July was the hottest month in 136 years of record keeping. It was the 15th straight month of record-breaking temperatures according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures. NOAA also noted that it was the 379th consecutive month with temperatures at least nominally above the 20th century average.

The hottest temperature ever recorded in the Eastern Hemisphere (54 degrees Celsius, or 129 degrees Fahrenheit) also was in July, scorching Mitribah, Kuwait. 

I could go on.

These temperature readings are particularly troublesome because carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere so far this year have passed the symbolic 400 parts per million threshold and are trending upward. 

Observing these trends, scientists note that going forward, each new month and year has the potential to be the hottest on record. The data so far in 2016 strongly suggests that it will pass 2015 and 2014 as the hottest year yet. Fifteen of the 16 warmest years have occurred in the 21st century and it’s only 2016.

The ink is barely dry on the celebrated Paris agreement reached at COP21, which pledged global action to keep global temperature increases to less than 2 C above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 C. This latest temperature data, however, already has shaken the foundations on which the deal was reached.

According to NASA, the average temperature in the first six months of 2016 was 1.3 C warmer than the preindustrial era in the late 19th century.

Despite the encouraging and historic Paris agreement, it is clear that changes to the climate are outpacing predictions, putting efforts to reduce emissions to help manage climate change significantly behind schedule. The targets set in the COP21 agreement were used to inform government planning for emissions reductions on a time frame looking toward 2050. As David Carlson, the director of the World Meteorological Organization put it, “We don’t have as much time as we thought.”

The transport sector is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases (GHGs), estimated to be approximately 25 to 30 percent of global emissions, but has the lowest renewable energy share of any sector. In spite of this (S&T)2 Consultants Inc., the energy and environmental consulting firm, found that in 2014 alone, ethanol use in the transport sector accounted for global GHG emission savings of 168.9 million metric tons.

Despite the fact that biofuel technologies are demonstrated to be effective at reducing GHGs and are affordable and immediately available, their adoption remains far below current potential. According to the International Energy Agency, sustainable biofuels, such as ethanol, could provide 27 percent of the world’s total transport fuel by 2050 and avoid about 2.1 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions per year, with biofuels eventually providing 20 percent of total emission savings in the transport sector.

When you consider that cars typically have a 20-year life span, and that plug-in cars make up just one-tenth of 1 percent of the global car market today, it is clear that the transition to a low-carbon global transport sector will need to rely on biofuels in the short- and medium-term to maximize emission reductions.

In a recent working paper, the International Renewable Energy Agency outlined recommendations to sharply increase the share of biofuels in the transport sector. Its recommendations would see total biofuel demand rise to 500 billion liters (132 billion gallons) within the next 15 years, representing a quadrupling of current annual liquid biofuel demand. 

The biofuels industry is not static. Government policies that increase the demand for, and investment in, biofuels will continue to drive research into new technologies and best practices. This, in turn, will promote next-generation biofuels and their associated advantages such as the use of agriculture waste products and increased emission offsets.

With an accelerated time frame for global action on climate change, the challenge for national governments has changed from identifying what actions need to be taken, to finding the best policy direction to achieve them.

Whatever form those policies take, biofuels will have to have a significant and continuing role to play in global efforts to fight climate change.

Author: Bliss Baker
President, Global Renewable Fuels Alliance