IEA roadmap concludes biofuels can provide up to 27% of world transportation fuel by 2050

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Contribution of biofuels to GHG emissions reduction in the transport sector. Modal shifts (not included) could contribute an additional 1.8 Gt CO2-eq. of emission reductions. Source: IEA. Click to enlarge.

By 2050, biofuels could provide 27% of total transport fuel and contribute in particular to the replacement of diesel, kerosene and jet fuel, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA). This would represent an increase in biofuel use from 55 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) today (2% of transport fuel) to 750 Mtoe in 2050.

With the transportation sector growing considerably, and demand for transport fuels rising globally, the IEA assessed liquid and gaseous fuels derived from biomass as one of the key technologies to reduce CO2 emissions and reduce dependency on liquid transport fuels. This projected use of biofuels could avoid around 2.1 gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 emissions per year when produced sustainably, the report finds.

The publication was prepared jointly by the International Energy Agency’s Renewable Energy Division (RED) and Energy Technology Policy Division (ETP).

While vehicle efficiency will be the most important and most cost-efficient way to reduce transport-emissions, biofuels will still be needed to provide low-carbon fuel alternatives for planes, marine vessels and other heavy transport modes, and will eventually provide one fifth (2.1 gigatonnes of CO2) of emission reductions in the transport sector.

—Bo Diczfalusy, the IEA’s Director of Sustainable Energy Policy and Technology

The IEA prepared the Technology Roadmap Biofuels for Transport in consultation with representatives of government, industry, academia and non-governmental organizations. The roadmap provides an overview of the current status of different conventional and advanced biofuel technologies and the latest research on sustainability issues related to biofuel production. It also charts a course for expanding the production and use of biofuels to 2050, in a sustainable way.

This report is the latest in the IEA’s series of technology roadmaps, which aim to guide governments and industry on the actions and milestones needed to achieve the potential for a full range of clean energy technologies.

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Life-cycle GHG balance of different conventional and advanced biofuels, and current state of technology. Source: IEA. Click to enlarge.

The report notes that biofuels can provide transport fuel with substantially lower CO2 emissions than conventional gasoline or diesel when comparing the entire life cycle of production. However, there are caveats: it is important to reduce the use of fossil energy during cultivation, transport and conversion of biomass to biofuel. It is also important to avoid direct or indirect land-use changes, such as converting forests to grow biofuel feedstocks, which release large amounts CO2 and could offset the CO2 reduction potential of biofuels, the report says.

Most conventional biofuels (produced mainly from starch, sugar and oilseed crops) must therefore be improved in terms of conversion- and land-use efficiency to achieve considerable greenhouse-gas reductions. In addition, advanced biofuel technologies currently at the demonstration stage (produced mainly from lignocellulosic biomass such as wood and straw), need to be commercially deployed within the next ten years and will provide the major share of biofuels in 2050.

Further support for advanced biofuel research, development and demonstration is still needed to improve conversion efficiencies and reduce costs. In addition, investments in commercial-scale production units will be a key to enable advanced biofuels to reach full market maturity. Government action is needed to provide a stable, long-term policy framework for biofuels that allows for sustained investments in biofuel expansion. Specific support measures that address the high investment risk currently associated with pre-commercial advanced biofuel technologies will be vital to trigger industry investments in first commercial plants.

—Bo Diczfalusy

With these substantial investments in place, most biofuel technologies could get close to cost-competitiveness with fossil fuels, or even be produced at lower costs in the longer term. In total, the report assesses the expenditure on biofuels required to meet the roadmap targets between US$11 trillion to US$13 trillion over the next 40 years, depending on the actual production costs. Diczfalusy noted at the launch of the report that while this figure may seem large, in the worst case biofuels would only increase the total costs of transport fuels by around 1% over the next 40 years, and could in fact lead to cost reductions over the same period.

There is a great potential for using low-risk sources that require limited land expansion and should not compete with food production to provide feedstock for the expanding biofuel industry, according to the report. The report says the use of residues and high-yielding energy crops as feedstocks, and the efficient use of biomass, for example through integrating biofuel and bio-material production (i.e., biorefineries), will be vital to reduce land competition. In addition, sustainability certification of biofuels, following internationally agreed sustainability criteria, will be an important step towards ensuring that biofuel production and use have a positive environmental, social and economic impact.

Meeting the biofuel demand in this roadmap would require around 65 exajoules (EJ) of biofuel feedstock (primary energy content of the biomass feedstock before conversion to final energy), occupying around 100 million hectares (Mha) in 2050. This poses a considerable challenge given competition for land and feedstocks from rapidly growing demand for food and fiber, and for additional 80 EJ of biomass for generating heat and power. However, the IEA concludes, with a sound policy framework in place, it should be possible to provide the required 145 EJ of total biomass for biofuels, heat and electricity from residues and wastes, along with sustainably grown energy crops.

The report outlines key actions required in the next 10 years to meet the projected target:

  • Create a stable, long-term policy framework for biofuels to increase investor confidence and allow for the sustainable expansion of biofuel production.

  • Ensure sustained funding and support mechanisms at the level required to enable promising advanced biofuel technologies to reach commercial production within the next 10 years and to prove their ability to achieve cost and sustainability targets.

  • Continue to develop internationally agreed sustainability criteria as the basis for implementation of sound certification schemes for biofuels and related land-use policies on a national level – without creating unwanted trade barriers, especially for developing countries.

  • Link financial support schemes to the sustainable performance of biofuels to ensure >50% life-cycle GHG emission savings for all biofuels, and to incentivize use of wastes and residues as feedstock.

  • Increase research efforts on feedstocks and land availability mapping to identify the most promising feedstock types and locations for future scale-up.

  • Reduce and eventually abolish tariffs and other trade barriers to enhance sustainable biomass and biofuel trade, and tap new feedstock sources.

  • Support international collaboration on capacity building and technology transfer to promote the adoption of sustainable biofuel production globally.

  • Promote the alignment of biofuel policies with those in related sectors, such as agriculture, forestry and rural development.

  • Adopt an overall sustainable land-use management system that aims to ensure all agricultural and forestry land is comprehensively managed in a balanced manner to avoid negative indirect land-use change and support the wide range of demands in different sectors.

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