Britain is banning new petrol and diesel cars from 2040. Does that mean the end of bio-fuels?

No more. Image: Getty.

One question that arises from the announcement by the UK government that new diesel and petrol cars will be banned by 2040 is what it means for biofuels. If cars running on fossil fuels will be substituted by electric cars, it could imply that all liquid transport fuels will be eliminated.

Around 5 per cent of the volume of the average British tank of petrol or diesel comes from biofuels at present. It is produced from various sources, including corn, wheat, sugar beet and waste ranging from rotten vegetables to used cooking oil.

 

Biofuels in the UK by feedstock type. Image: RAENG report.

The large-scale use of biofuels dates back to the 1970s, when they were first introduced in Brazil through government incentives to build vehicles that could run on 100 per cent ethanol produced mainly from sugar cane. Brazil remains a leader in biofuels, despite ups and downs over the years. More than a quarter of petrol content must comprise ethanol – and most vehicles can run 100 per cent ethanol if they choose to.

Elsewhere biofuels have enjoyed varying fortunes. They became a popular possible alternative in the 1990s as a consequence of the rise in the oil price. More recently, more than 60 countries across the world require some blend of biofuels at the fuel pumps as part of their commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and have also launched biofuel production programmes.

Yet progress has become very slow in many countries. Among the reasons are the period of low oil prices and the fact that it uses much more farmland to increase biofuel proportions in fuel tanks.


Biofuels RIP?

So will anyone bother to keep striving towards sustainable liquid fuels now that the end of petrol/diesel vehicles appears in sight? The answer has to be yes, for a couple of important reasons.

The first is hybrid vehicles, which have been far more successful than purely electric ones to date. These engines that run on a combination of liquid fuels and recharged batteries will play a major part in the transition towards complete electrification. If the UK is to move towards a complete ban on fossil fuels in transport, new hybrids are likely to increasingly depend on biofuels.

The second point is that the transport system is about far more than roads. Aviation, shipping and haulage are all significant and they have a much more limited scope for electrification. They will continue to rely heavily on liquid fuels – to which end the US navy recently launched its first biofuel-powered aircraft carrier, for example.

So if we’re still going to need biofuels, how do we make the most of them? I was a member of a working group of the Royal Academy of Engineering that recently produced a report about the sector commissioned by the UK’s departments for transport and energy.

The report, which involved a meta-study of a number of research papers about the sector, said biofuels would undoubtedly play an important role in meeting the UK`s commitments towards climate change. It called for a combination of incentives and careful regulation to avoid risks and unintended consequences, such as crops being diverted from food production.

It proposed incentives to encourage so-called second-generation biofuels – those which predominantly come from waste and have a far better emissions profile than biofuels from dedicated crops such as soya or corn. It proposed to incentivise growing biofuel crops on land that was unsuitable for food production, while generally capping crop-based biofuels to help prevent them from taking up space that could be for food crops. It also proposed that the minimum blend level in the UK be increased from its current 4.75 per cent (more work is required to determine what might be realistic).

If the government approached biofuels in this way, there could be indirect benefits – giving farmers an extra incentive to plant more crops, for example, as well as improving crop yields and making farming processes more efficient. The amount of land dedicated to farming could also rise as a result.

The ConversationMy message is therefore that we will need biofuels for the foreseeable future despite the UK government’s 2040 ban. By prioritising the right kinds of biofuels through subsidies and caps, we can minimise their drawbacks and maximise their advantages over petroleum fuels. The 2040 ban, far from meaning the end of liquid biofuels, should be seen as an important opportunity for the sector.

Raffaella Ocone is chair of chemical engineering at Heriot-Watt University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Seven climate change myths put about by big oil companies

Oil is good for you! Image: Getty.

Since the start of this year, major players within the fossil fuel industry – “big oil” – have made some big announcements regarding climate change. BP revealed plans to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by acquiring additional renewable energy companies. Royal Dutch Shell defended its $1-$2bn green energy annual budget. Even ExxonMobil, until recently relatively dismissive of the basic science behind climate change, included a section dedicated to reducing emissions in its yearly outlook for energy report.

But this idea of a “green” oil company producing “clean” fossil fuels is one that I would call a dangerous myth. Such myths obscure the irreconcilability between burning fossil fuels and environmental protection – yet they continue to be perpetuated to the detriment of our planet.

Myth 1: Climate change can be solved with the same thinking that created it

Measures put in place now to address climate change must be sustainable in the long run. A hasty, sticking plaster approach based on quick fixes and repurposed ideas will not suffice.

Yet this is precisely what some fossil fuel companies intend to do. To address climate change, major oil and gas companies are mostly doing what they have historically excelled at – more technology, more efficiency, and producing more fossil fuels.

But like the irresponsible gambler that cannot stop doubling down during a losing streak, the industry’s bet on more, more, more only means more ecological destruction. Irrespective of how efficient fossil fuel production becomes, that the industry’s core product can be 100 per cent environmentally sustainable is an illusion.

A potential glimmer of hope is carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process that sucks carbon out of the air and sends it back underground. But despite being praised by big oil as a silver bullet solution for climate change, CCS is yet another sticking plaster approach. Even CCS advocates suggest that it cannot currently be employed on a global, mass scale.

Myth 2: Climate change won’t spell the end of the fossil fuel industry

According to a recent report, climate change is one factor among several that has resulted in the end of big oil’s golden years – a time when oil was plenty, money quick, and the men at the top celebrated as cowboy capitalists.

Now, to ensure we do not surpass the dangerous 2°C threshold, we must realise that there is simply no place for “producers” of fossil fuels. After all, as scientists, financial experts, and activists have warned, if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, the proven reserves of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies cannot be consumed.

Myth 3: Renewables investment means oil companies are seriously tackling climate change

Compared to overall capital expenditures, oil companies renewables’ investment is a miniscule drop in the barrel. Even then, as companies such as BP have demonstrated before, they will divest from renewables as soon as market conditions change.

Big oil companies’ green investments only produce tiny reductions in their overall greenhouse gas emissions. BP calls these effects “real sustainable reductions” – but they accounted for only 0.3 per cent of their total emissions reductions in 2016, 0.1 per cent in 2015, 0.1 per cent in 2014, and so on.


Myth 4: Hard climate regulation is not an option

One of the oil industry’s biggest fears regarding climate change is regulation. It is of such importance that BP recently hinted at big oil’s exodus from the EU if climate regulation took effect. Let’s be clear, we are talking about “command-and-control” regulation here, such as pollution limits, and not business-friendly tools such as carbon pricing or market-based quota systems.

There are many commercial reasons why the fossil fuel industry would prefer the latter over the former. Notably, regulation may result in a direct impact on the bottom line of fossil fuel companies given incurred costs. But climate regulation is – in combination with market-based mechanisms – required to address climate change. This is a widely accepted proposition advocated by mainstream economists, NGOs and most governments.

Myth 5: Without cheap fossil fuels, the developing world will stop

Total’s ex-CEO, the late Christoph de Margerie, once remarked: “Without access to energy, there is no development.” Although this is probably true, that this energy must come from fossil fuels is not. Consider, for example, how for 300 days last year Costa Rica relied entirely on renewable energy for its electricity needs. Even China, the world’s biggest polluter, is simultaneously the biggest investor in domestic renewables projects.

As the World Bank has highlighted, in contrast to big oil’s claims about producing more fossil fuels to end poverty, the sad truth is that by burning even the current fossil fuel stockpile, climate change will place millions of people back into poverty. The UN concurs, signalling that climate change will result in reduced crop yields, more waterborne diseases, higher food prices and greater civil unrest in developing parts of the world.

Myth 6: Big oil must be involved in climate policy-making

Fossil fuel companies insist that their involvement in climate policy-making is necessary, so much so that they have become part of the wallpaper at international environmental conferences. This neglects that fossil fuels are, in fact, a pretty large part of the problem. Big oil attends international environmental conferences for two reasons: lobbying and self-promotion.

Some UN organisations already recognise the risk of corporations hijacking the policy-making process. The World Health Organisation, for instance, forbids the tobacco industry from attending its conferences. The UN’s climate change arm, the UNFCCC, should take note.

Myth 7: Nature can and must be “tamed” to address climate change

If you mess with mother nature, she bites back. As scientists reiterate, natural systems are complex, unpredictable, and even hostile when disrupted.

Climate change is a prime example. Small changes in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere may have drastic implications for Earth’s inhabitants.

The ConversationFossil fuel companies reject that natural systems are fragile – as evidenced by their expansive operations in ecologically vulnerable areas such as the Arctic. The “wild” aspect of nature is considered something to be controlled and dominated. This myth merely serves as a way to boost egos. As independent scientist James Lovelock wrote, “The idea that humans are yet intelligent enough to serve as stewards of the Earth is among the most hubristic ever.”

George Ferns, Lecturer in Management, Employment and Organisation, Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.