Creating biofuels from waste produced by industry, farms, and households could generate 36,000 jobs in the UK and save around 37m tonnes of oil use annually by 2030, according to a new report.
Across Europe, hundreds of thousands of new jobs could be created by using these ‘advanced biofuels’, which could replace 16% of the continent’s road transport fuel by the same year, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) study said. But the gains will not come without ambitious policy to promote advanced biofuels, it warned.
“Alternative fuels from wastes and residues offer real and substantial carbon savings, even when taking account of possible indirect emissions,” said Chris Malins who led the analysis for ICCT . “The resource is available, and the technology exists – the challenge now is for Europe to put a policy framework in place that allows rapid investment.”
However, a key vote in the European Parliament’s environment committee next week could stop this potential being realised, as a centre-right grouping of MEPs has signalled that it will oppose a biofuels reform package considered crucial to the fledgling industry.
The committee will vote next Tuesday on a compromise biofuels reform bill that would mandate a goal of advanced biofuels providing 1.25% of Europe’s transport fuel by 2020.
This advanced fuel could come from woody crops, agricultural residues, algae or household and industrial waste. It is seen as less environmentally damaging than first generation biofuels produced by growing crops such as rapeseed, which have been criticised for displacing food crops and raising commodity prices.
Malins said that a mandatory advanced biofuels goal was “absolutely crucial” to realising the sector’s potential, as it would bring market certainty and long-term signals for investors.
But sources at the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) told the Guardian that they were unlikely to back such a package. “We think it is unrealistically ambitious,” a source said. “We are not going to support the compromise proposal.”
The bill would also introduce criteria for assessing biofuels’ sustainability and set a 6% cap for the amount that first generation biofuel could contribute to the EU’s 2020 target of providing 10% of road transport fuel from low carbon sources.
Marko Janhunen, the vice-president of UPM Biorefining in Finland, said that parliamentary manoeuvring could risk the advanced sector’s potential for hi-tech job creation in rural areas.
“This is a critical moment for the advanced biofuels sector and this discussion is very frustrating,” he told the Guardian. “We want to see incentives and reasons to invest. We want to get rid of the regulatory uncertainty that has been surrounding the discussion.”
UPM recently opened a €175m renewable waste biorefinery that transforms residues from pulp into renewable diesel that can be used by cars – or potentially, one day, by planes. British Airways is one of several members of a Leaders of Sustainable Biofuels group that Janhunen also chairs.
“The EU has spent hundreds of millions in projects supporting the uptake of these technologies,” Janhunen added. “Now they are here, it is very important to set policies in place that enable them to be brought into the market.”
The current proposal has faced a tortuous journey and campaigners fear that even a narrow victory now will embolden east European states to finally bury it in the European Council.
“If the EPP votes against the compromise, there is a massive risk that the whole package could fall into a conciliation process, or even no conclusion at all,” said Nusa Urbancic, a clean energy programme manager at the Transport and Environment group. “This will mean continued negative impacts on deforestation and food prices, as well as leading the EU away from our climate objectives.”
The European ethanol industry association (ePURE) has thrown its weight behind the biofuels bill. Its secretary-general, Robert Wright, told the Guardian that “only a binding target will send a clear signal to investors that there will be a future market for advanced biofuels.”
But other industry figures were sceptical about the likelihood of meaningful regulation at the EU level, and about the ICCT’s analysis more generally.
“Studies like this have rosy assumptions that feed into rosy conclusions,” said Eric Sievers, the CEO of Ethanol Europe Renewables. “You don’t make a large capital investment in a regulatory regime that expires in 2020, so the potential and reality are at odds. Nothing prevents this stuff from being imported from the US or Brazil so the whole jobs argument goes down the tubes.”
In the absence of EU renewable targets for 2030, however, Malins said that the cleaner fuel process in Europe could still be continued with carbon intensity fuel standards similar to those in California, an extension of the bloc’s Fuel Quality Directive, or fiscal measures by European states.
Urbancic said that the US already had advanced biofuels targets which would likely deter its small industry from importing to the EU, while Brazil was likely to focus its industry on aviation.
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