Biofuels are liquid and gaseous fuels produced from biomass – organic matter derived from plants or animals.
Conventional biofuel technologies include well-established processes that are already producing biofuels on a commercial scale. These biofuels, commonly referred to as first-generation, include sugar- and starch-based ethanol, oil-crop based biodiesel and straight vegetable oil, as well as biogas derived through anaerobic digestion. Typical feedstocks used in these processes include sugarcane and sugar beet, starch-bearing grains like corn and wheat, oil crops like rape (canola), soybean and oil palm, and in some cases animal fats and used cooking oils.
Advanced biofuel technologies are conversion technologies which are still in the research and development (R&D), pilot or demonstration phase, commonly referred to as second- or third- generation. This category includes biofuels based on lignocellulosic biomass, such as cellulosic-ethanol, biomass-to-liquids (BtL)-diesel and bio-synthetic gas (bio-SG). The category also includes novel technologies that are mainly in the R&D and pilot stage, such as algae-based biofuels and the conversion of sugar into diesel-type biofuels using biological or chemical catalysts.
Global production of biofuels has been growing steadily over the last decade from 16 billion litres in 2000 to around 110 billion litres in 2013. Today, biofuels provide roughly 3.5% of total road transport fuel globally (on an energy basis) and considerably higher shares are achieved in certain countries. In Brazil, for instance, biofuels provide around 25% of road transport fuel demand today.
Global biofuels supply 2012-2018
IEA, (2013), Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report 2013, OECD/IEA, Paris
Over the medium-term, world biofuel production is projected to reach almost 140 billion liters in 2018. On an energy-adjusted basis, biofuels would supply 1.6 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (mboe/d), slightly less than the crude oil production of the European Union in 2011. Biofuels could thus provide 4% of global road transport fuel demand in 2018, but uncertainty on support policies in the European Union and the United States provides a possible downside risk, and might undermine the sector’s growth potential, despite an increasing number of emerging and developing countries establishing biofuel support policies to reduce oil import bills.
IEA analyses show that biofuels may have to play an important role in the long-term, if the world is to make meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. In the Technology Roadmap – Biofuels for Transport, biofuel production is increasing ten-fold to 2050, with biofuels providing 25% of world transport fuel demand by that time. In the roadmap vision, biofuels will increasingly replace petroleum-based transport fuels in heavy, long-distance transport modes such as aviation and marine shipping, where few suitable low-carbon fuel alternatives are available. Advanced biofuels play a particularly important role in the roadmap, as they can provide infrastructure compatible, low-carbon fuels. In addition, these fuels hold the promise to have a higher land-use efficiency, and better greenhouse-gas balance than some of the biofuels used today.
Some of the conventional biofuels used today do not always meet expected net life-cycle greenhouse gas emission and cost performance targets, and certain conventional biofuels have been criticised for causing deforestation and adding to pressure on agricultural land needed for food and fodder production. The IEA considers it important to distinguish between different types of feedstocks and conversion routes, and ensure deployment of land-use efficient, low-carbon biofuels to meet growing demand.
The IEA calls on governments to ensure that their biofuel support policies foster the transition towards fully sustainable biofuels, including advanced biofuel technologies. Internationally aligned sustainability certification schemes for biofuels will be vital to ensure a positive environmental and social impact, and create an international market for sustainable biofuels. The IEA emphasises the importance of continuing to support advanced biofuels research, development and demonstration, and provide sound support mechanisms to ensure that the new technologies reach full market deployment. Any economic incentive should however be transitional, decrease over time and be aimed at encouraging the full competitiveness of alternative fuels.