A new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) says that the widespread deployment of biofuels can play an important role in reducing CO2 emissions in the transport sector and enhancing energy security, when produced sustainably.
20 April 2011
With the transportation sector growing considerably, and demand for transport fuels rising globally, the IEA assesses biofuels – liquid and gaseous fuels derived from biomass (organic material derived from plants and animals) – as one of the key technologies to reduce CO2 emissions and reduce dependency on liquid transport fuels. The report shows how global biofuel consumption can increase in a sustainable way – one in which production of biofuels brings significant life cycle environmental benefits and does not compromise food security – from 55 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) today to 750 Mtoe in 2050; this would mean that the global share of biofuel in total transport fuel would grow from 2% today to 27% in 2050.
“While vehicle efficiency will be the most important and most cost-efficient way to reduce transport-emissions, biofuels will still be needed to provide low-carbon fuel alternatives for planes, marine vessels and other heavy transport modes, and will eventually provide one fifth (2.1 gigatonnes of CO2) of emission reductions in the transport sector,” Bo Diczfalusy, the IEA’s Director of Sustainable Energy Policy and Technology, said at the launch of the report today in Washington.
The IEA prepared the Technology Roadmap Biofuels for Transport in consultation with representatives of government, industry, academia and non-governmental organizations. The roadmap provides an overview of the current status of different conventional and advanced biofuel technologies and the latest research on sustainability issues related to biofuel production. It also charts a course for expanding the production and use of biofuels to 2050, in a sustainable way.
This report is the latest in the IEAs series of technology roadmaps, which aim to guide governments and industry on the actions and milestones needed to achieve the potential for a full range of clean energy technologies.
Efficient technologies needed
Biofuels can provide transport fuel with substantially lower CO2 emissions than conventional gasoline or diesel when comparing the entire “life cycle” of production – that is, from the field to the vehicle. But there are caveats: it is important to reduce the use of fossil energy during cultivation, transport and conversion of biomass to biofuel. It is also important to avoid direct or indirect land-use changes, such as converting forests to grow biofuel feedstocks, which release large amounts CO2 and could offset the CO2 reduction potential of biofuels.
Most conventional biofuels (produced mainly from starch, sugar and oilseed crops) must therefore be improved in terms of conversion- and land-use efficiency to achieve considerable greenhouse-gas reductions. In addition, advanced biofuel technologies currently at the demonstration stage (produced mainly from lignocellulosic biomass such as wood and straw), need to be commercially deployed within the next ten years and will provide the major share of biofuels in 2050.
“Further support for advanced biofuel research, development and demonstration is still needed to improve conversion efficiencies and reduce costs. In addition, investments in commercial-scale production units will be a key to enable advanced biofuels to reach full market maturity,” said Mr. Diczfalusy at the launch in Washington. “Government action is needed to provide a stable, long-term policy framework for biofuels that allows for sustained investments in biofuel expansion. Specific support measures that address the high investment risk currently associated with pre-commercial advanced biofuel technologies will be vital to trigger industry investments in first commercial plants.”
With these substantial investments in place, most biofuel technologies could get close to cost-competitiveness with fossil fuels, or even be produced at lower costs in the longer term. In total, the report assesses the expenditure on biofuels required to meet the roadmap targets between USD 11 trillion to USD 13 trillion over the next 40 years, depending on the actual production costs. “This figure may seem large, but in fact even in the worst case biofuels would only increase the total costs of transport fuels by around 1% over the next 40 years, and could in fact lead to cost reductions over the same period.”
Sustainability is key
“With world population growing by more than 30% to 9 billion people in 2050, and food demand increasing approximately 70% according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, competition of biofuel production for land with food, fodder, as well as fiber production needs to be carefully addressed to avoid negative impacts from biofuel expansion on food security,” said Mr. Diczfalusy.
There is a great potential for using low-risk sources that require limited land expansion, and should not compete with food production, to provide feedstock for the expanding biofuel industry. The report says the use of residues and high-yielding energy crops as feedstocks, and the efficient use of biomass, for instance through integrating biofuel and bio-material production (so-called biorefineries), will be vital to reduce land competition. In addition, sustainability certification of biofuels, following internationally agreed sustainability criteria, will be an important step towards ensuring that biofuel production and use have a positive environmental, social and economic impact.
Around 3 billion tonnes of biomass per year will be needed in 2050 to produce the amount of biofuels envisioned in the IEA roadmap. The report assesses that 1 billion tonnes of biomass residues and wastes would be needed, and this would need to be supplemented by production from around 100 million hectares of land - around 2% of total agricultural land. This would be a three-fold increase compared with today, but the yield of biofuels could increase by a factor of 10 through the use of wastes and residues and through the use of more productive crops and processes.
The report stresses that governments should adopt mandatory sustainability standards for biofuels, and ensure they are internationally aligned, to avoid acting as barriers to trade. Since many points of criticism on biofuels’ sustainability are in fact issues concerning the whole agricultural sector, the report concludes that biofuel policies should be aligned with those in agriculture, forestry and rural development. An overall sustainable land-use management strategy for all agricultural and forestry land will be the only way to avoid land-use changes with negative impacts on the environment and CO2 emissions, and to support the wide range of demands in different sectors.
International collaboration is vital
The report stresses that reducing tariffs and other trade barriers will be important to expanding the trade in biomass and biofuels to reach the levels necessary to meet emerging demand in different regions of the world. International co-operation will also be needed to further develop analyses of sustainable land and biomass potentials, and obtain detailed regional data on suitable feedstocks for biofuel production. To ensure developing countries can successfully adopt sustainable biofuel production, international collaboration on capacity building and technology transfer will be necessary, the report stresses. Developing countries interested in introducing biofuels can profit from the experience of other regions, including lessons learned and best practices for biofuel production, as well as the government policies that can help ensure that required investments are beneficial for local economies.
About the IEA
The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an autonomous organisation which works to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy for its 28 member countries and beyond. Founded in response to the 1973/4 oil crisis, the IEA’s initial role was to help countries co-ordinate a collective response to major disruptions in oil supply through the release of emergency oil stocks to the markets. While this continues to be a key aspect of its work, the IEA has evolved and expanded. It is at the heart of global dialogue on energy, providing reliable and unbiased research, statistics, analysis and recommendations.
For further information, or to request a free copy of Biofuels for Transport, please send a request by e-mail to IEAPressOffice@iea.org
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