DfT slashes estimate of biofuel’s carbon savings

Biofuels will only achieve an average 50% saving in greenhouse gas emissions compared with fossil fuels by 2010/11 - rather than 60% - says the Department for Transport. It has lowered targets under its Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation to reflect this.

The government has cut its targets for greenhouse gas savings from biofuels under the renewable transport fuel obligation (RTFO) - admitting a 60% target was "unrealistic".

The Department for Transport (DfT) announced the change in January in its response to a consultation on the RTFO’s carbon and sustainability reporting requirements.1 A final version of the reporting guidelines was also issued in January by the Renewable Fuels Agency.2 Under the obligation, fuel suppliers must blend a growing proportion of biodiesel or bioethanol into their fuel from April 2008, reaching 5% by 2010 (ENDS Report 370, p 35 ).

Last year, the government set voluntary targets for the level of greenhouse gas savings that biofuels should achieve under the RTFO (ENDS Report 390, pp 40-41 ) when compared with fossil-fuel petrol and diesel with the same energy content. These were 40% in 2008/09, 50% in 2009/10 and 60% in 2010/11.

But the targets for 2009/10 and 2010/11 have now been reduced, the latter to 50%. A higher target would be "unachievable" using "known sustainable feedstocks" for biofuels, a DfT spokesman said. It would also create the risk that companies would have to use feedstocks with high sustainability impacts, such as Malaysian palm oil which is linked to rainforest destruction.

British Sugar says its bioethanol plant in Wissington, Norfolk, will save 60% CO2 compared with petrol (ENDS Report 395, p 34-37 ). But the default greenhouse gas savings in the reporting guidance would only give such biofuels a 41% saving (see table).

The default values are deliberately conservative to force biofuel suppliers to calculate their actual savings.

Environmental NGOs have been calling for a minimum 50% saving under the RTFO (ENDS Report 386, p 15 ).

"The numbers first talked about were naive," said Bob Saunders a biofuels policy consultant at BP. "To get to a 60% average saving, we’d need technologies that are still in the laboratory phase like ligno-cellulosic biofuels." Bioethanol from Brazilian sugar cane could achieve a 75% saving, he said, but the country’s export network is poorly developed.

"The majority of fuels are going to come from indigenous feedstocks like rapeseed and used cooking oil, with some palm oil as well," he added.

Reducing the 60% target means possible carbon savings from the RTFO should also have dropped. It was estimated that the scheme could save 3.67 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2010 when first proposed. Last year, this was downgraded to 2.57-2.93 million tonnes to reflect the effect of biofuels on car fuel efficiency.

Both figures were based on biofuels achieving an average 60% saving. If only a 50% saving is made, this would be expected to drop to 2.13-2.42 million tonnes of CO2 saved a year.

But the DfT said it will not be revising its forecasts due to changes in the way it measures fossil fuel emissions. "We’ve recently revised our models to use well-to-wheel emissions from fossil fuels, rather than tank-to-wheel emissions. That compensates for the reduction in the target," a spokesman said.

No significant changes have been made to the reporting requirements themselves.

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