Royal Society backs biofuels

The Royal Society says a long-term market for biofuels is needed if high greenhouse gas savings are to be achieved

Continuing support for biofuels is needed to encourage the development of fuels with the highest greenhouse gas savings, according to the Royal Society.

The government’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation is too short-term, says the report.

The report’s message is in stark contrast to other recent reports on biofuels, which have focused on their potentially limited greenhouse gas savings, impact on food supplies and habitat destruction.

Public figures have also been urging caution. In January, the BBC aired comments by EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas that the environmental and social problems caused by biofuels are “bigger than we thought they were”. His views have not altered the European Commission’s plans for its revised renewable energy Directive to include a binding target for biofuels to make up 10% of road fuels by 2020.

The Royal Society gives little space to such fears. There are “unquestionably large uncertainties” around biofuels, it says. However, current biofuels are likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated average of 50% compared to the fossil fuels they replace, the report says. Second-generation biofuels made from materials such as wood or straw “are likely to show a two-fold or more” improvement in these figures.

Taking into account co-products from biorefining and using biofuels to power the process will result in savings of well over 100%, it believes.

Biofuels will increase the pressure on land resources, it admits, but longer-term support would allow the development of genetically modified crops with higher yields, as well as crops suited to be grown on marginal land.

A long-term market would also encourage investment in more efficient production processes and engine technologies that are suited to using biofuels. Both of these could lead to substantial improvements in the greenhouse gas reductions achieved by biofuels.

In relation to the UK, it says that the RTFO should be extended to 2025. It should also include a greenhouse gas target. The report does not suggest a target, but speaking at the report’s launch, Dr Jeremy Woods of Imperial College London – a member of the report’s working group – said it should be a 50% minimum saving.

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