Not all biofuels are the same: EU gets tougher on carbon emissions

Last month, the European Union agreed a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by the use of farmland for biofuel crops.

Under the agreement, food crops grown on agricultural land – so-called ‘first-generation’ biofuels – should only account for up to 7% of final energy consumption in transport by 2020 (existing EU law has a renewable energy in transport target of 10%).  Each EU member state will then be required to set a national target on advanced, or ‘second-generation’, biofuels.  These biofuels, like the biogas we blogged about recently, are typically produced using farm or municipal waste as the feedstock (seaweed has been trialled too) and therefore do not compete directly with food or animal feed crops.  The indicative target for member states is 0.5%, though a lower one can be set to allow for national energy efficiency policies already in place or for constraints such as climate.

Indirect carbon emissions

The use of petrol and diesel for transportation purposes is a major driver of carbon emissions, with the contribution increasing still further when emissions from extracting and refining, the transport of oil to and from the refinery, and other variables are taken into account.  

However, industrial-scale corn growing for first-generation biofuels is energy-intensive too: the crops require fertilisers, the feedstock needs fuel to transport it, and energy is required to convert feedstock into ethanol.

Of course, breaking down the environmental costs is complex, especially when it comes to factoring in the methods by which feedstock itself is transported.  On top of this is the question of ‘indirect land use change’ (ILUC) – the conversion of (for example) forest areas into agricultural land to replace land given over to growing biofuels, inevitably accompanied by a rise in carbon emissions.

Biofuels controversy

Producing biofuels from food crops such as corn has long raised concerns about deforestation and also their potential impact on food prices. In 2012 these concerns prompted the European Commission to propose amending the fuel quality and renewable energy directives, which regulate biofuel production.

While April’s EU agreement is seen as a thumbs-up for the concept of biofuels in the face of long-standing opposition from environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), representatives of the advanced biofuels industry have called for a tighter cap and a more far-reaching agreement. They claim that only a binding target for the use of second-generation biofuels, applied to all EU member states, would spur innovation and stimulate investment in those biofuels that can do most to reduce carbon emissions.

However, the UK’s National Farmers Union (NFU) opposes the restrictions, claiming they will reduce opportunities to export wheat or oilseed rape to the likes of Germany for biofuel production.

While debate about the most sustainable fuels for our future transport needs will continue for the foreseeable future, Exi Flow continues to serve the liquid and gas flow measurement market around the world.  To find out more about our services call us on 01243 554920.