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Major new UK report argues biofuels, especially second generation, are needed to mitigate climate change

Traffic congestion near the clock tower (Big Ben) at the palace of Westminster. Image by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)
Traffic congestion near the clock tower (Big Ben) at the palace of Westminster. Image by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)

Biofuels are needed to meet the UK’s commitments to mitigating climate change, according to a new report requested by the county's government.

Second generation biofuels, made from wastes and by-products of other sectors, will be especially important according to the major new review of the sustainability pros and cons of biofuels by The Royal Academy of Engineering.

Titled Sustainability of liquid biofuels, the report was commissioned by the UK’s Department of Transport and the Department of Energy and Climate Change to provide advice on the UK’s future strategy for the development of biofuels.

“Gauging the sustainability of liquid biofuels is a complex undertaking. However, complexity is no excuse for inaction as liquid biofuels will be needed if the UK’s ambitious decarbonisation targets are to be met,” states the executive summary of the report.

First generation biofuels, manufactured from crops like corn, are controversial. The increased demand for crops drives the conversion of land to agriculture, with the consequent risks of an increase in deforestation, drainage of peatlands, loss of biodiversity, as well as associated usage of freshwater, fertilisers and pesticides. The Academy report finds that there is now enough understanding about what specific crops and regions pose a high risk of land use change and how these risks can be managed. To that end, it calls for a cap on crop-based biofuels.

A major recommendation of the report calls on government to incentivise the development of second generation biofuels in the UK, including feedstocks such as waste cooking oil, municipal solid waste, the dregs from whisky manufacture and even fatbergs. It also recommends the growing of energy crops, particularly on marginal land unsuitable for food production.

Additionally, the new report calls for proper regulation of the biofuels sector, highlighting the need for clear and consistent categorisation of wastes and residues to avoid unintended market distortions. It also calls for life-cycle assessment of biofuels, particularly in regard to carbon footprint; and a strengthening of sustainability auditing, including a risk based approach on sustainability and region of origin.

Traffic congestion near the clock tower (Big Ben) at the palace of Westminster. Image by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)