Think outside the barrel

As the government steps up its support for biodiesel we ask environmental scientist Mark Hurst what its use in transport could mean for preventing climate change


Two thousand and six was a year most environmental scientists have been waiting for, for almost a decade. It was the year when climate change came into focus for the mainstream media, the public and politicians. Article upon article in the popular press, item upon item in the televised news. For all independently-thinking scientists, this could not have come sooner. Using evidence-based reasoning, there has been little doubt that climate change is very real. When you go on to realise that the climate ultimately controls two of life’s essential requirements, food and water, you start to reveal the scale of the problem. Change the climate - you change the availability and abundance of food and water. The conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan has claimed the lives of 400,000 people, also creating millions of refugees.


John Ashton, the UK foreign secretary's special representative for climate change, said recently: “A major contributing factor to the conflict in Darfur has been a shift in rainfall that has put nomadic herders and settled pastoralists into conflict with each other”. This sort of climatic shift is just one of the problems that is going to become a lot more common, unless pretty drastic action is taken in the next decade. The UK government now has a target to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 60 per cent by 2050, in order to alleviate the worst consequences of climate change. These reductions, which equate to about 3 per cent a year, should be legally binding under the Climate Change Bill, which was announced in last year’s Queen’s Speech. Transport produces around a quarter of the UK’s GHG emissions and road transport makes up a large proportion of this. The good news for road transport, unlike air transport, is that there are alternative fuels that can be used. Biofuels are currently the main alternative and have come to prominence in recent years.

There are a number of feedstocks that can be used to produce biofuels. For biodiesel, apart from waste vegetable oil from food outlets, the best crop to grow in the UK to produce vegetable oil in terms of yield and cost is rapeseed. You hear and read about a lot of confusion between the terms ‘renewable’ and ‘carbon-neutral’, with some people wrongly thinking they are interchangeable.

The ‘renewable’ nature of biofuels excites politicians worried about the dependence on oil, especially imported oil. Brazil and the USA follow this path without much care for climate change. You read too many times that biofuels are carbon-neutral which, sadly, is not true. The carbon costs of biofuels are extremely variable. They reduce carbon emissions but not currently to near zero. For biodiesel, the savings have been calculated as between 20 per cent and 60 per cent on a well-to-wheel basis, and bioethanol has been calculated to be even more variable. This is because there are carbon costs in production, fertilising, pesticide usage, processing and transport of biofuels. The carbon saving would be increased with a feedstock that can be more intensively farmed and efficiently processed. The current biofuels are considered first generation, with future developments pushing carbon savings potentially up to 75 per cent and beyond. These second generation fuels are currently being developed with some involving the use of cellulose-based feedstocks, like straw and wood, to produce bioethanol.

Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation
However, currently biodiesel is mostly sold blended with fossil diesel. The biodiesel content is commonly around 5 per cent, as this does not require any modifications to the vehicle or invalidate vehicle warranties. The downside, though, is the GHG emission savings which are minimal at around 1-3 per cent. Higher blends of 20 per cent-30 per cent will be possible in the future in unmodified cars, as advanced ‘cleaner’ biodiesel becomes available. Currently, the overall use of biofuels is low, making up around 0.3 per cent of all fuel used. The production and usage is soon to rise abruptly with the introduction of the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) in April 2008. The RTFO is driven by the EU Biofuels Directive and requires 2.5 per cent of all fuel sold in the UK to be biofuel, rising to 5 per cent by April 2010. This large mandatory increase in biofuels will have a range of consequences. Firstly, the overall UK GHG emissions saving will be large. This has been calculated by the Department for Transport as 1.1 million tonnes of CO2 in 2010, equivalent to the GHG emissions of half a million cars. Secondly, and more intriguing, is the question of where all this biofuel is going to come from? The UK is predicted to use 51.4 million tonnes of road fuel in 2010 and will therefore need around 3 million tonnes of biofuel, taking into account the lower energy capacity. Growing rapeseed in turn produces around 1.5 tonnes of biodiesel per hectare. This means we will require around a third of the UK’s 5.7 million hectares of arable land to fulfil the RTFO. This produces a conflict with food production, but is one way to sort out a nation with a growing obesity problem. If you do get hungry, you can add the UK’s 0.55 - 0.75 million hectares of set-aside land, although as the European Environment Agency have reported, abolishing set-aside land will produce negative impacts on wildlife. Even if we did have enough land, rapeseed is not currently the feedstock of choice due to its cost.

Deforestation Diesel
Palm oil has a yield around three times that of rapeseed. Cheap imports of palm oil mostly come from Southeast Asia where the plantations utilise cheap labour and are responsible for tropical deforestation on a colossal scale. The two major players, Malaysia and Indonesia, produce 85 per cent of the world’s palm oil. In Indonesia, the deforestation is accelerating to 2 million hectares a year (about the size of Wales) with a World Bank report stating that the clearance is mainly for palm oil plantations driven by demand for biodiesel in the EU. Increasing expansion of plantations is also causing clearance of the forested peatlands of Southeast Asia. The drainage of these peatlands causes decomposition, resulting in huge releases of carbon stored in the peat.

In a very recent study, Wetlands International estimate that CO2 emissions from Southeast Asia’s peatlands equate to an almost incomprehensible 2 billion tonnes a year (about 8 per cent of total global GHG emissions!) from decomposition and fires. This equates to 86 tonnes per hectare per year, making overall CO2 emissions from biodiesel produced from palm oil at least 700 per cent higher than when fossil fuels are used. This, being blunt, is an environmental disaster and is about as far away from ‘sustainable development’ as you can possibly get. The EU therefore needs to seriously rethink the Biofuels Directive immediately. It must now be a priority for the international community, including the UK and EU, to help the countries of Southeast Asia to conserve and restore peatland areas.

The Western world can no longer expect to export our ‘excessive consumption’ problem to the developing world. Even the environment secretary, David Miliband, recognised the deforestation problem when he wrote “the dangers of rainforest pillage are valid, but biofuels done right do have an important role to play.”


So what's new? 

Biofuels provide only a limited role in tackling climate change. The UK’s RTFO will have included in the scheme two very important parts, carbon and sustainability reporting, for all biofuels supplied in the UK. The carbon reporting will be an accreditation scheme to calculate the actual greenhouse gas savings and the sustainability reporting will include environmental and social impacts. Biofuels provide part of a solution, only when certified from a genuinely sustainable source from within the UK, using our farm assurance schemes to reduce environmental harm. The reality is that to tackle climate change will require tough decisions and not the current ‘business as usual’ increase in fuel demand every year. Reduction in vehicle use, more efficient vehicles (including hybrids), eco-friendly driving and better public transport links are key. Technology needs to provide a solution that doesn’t involve destroying pristine rainforest or draining tropical peatlands and that doesn’t compete with food production to provide renewability. Electric vehicles are a solution, and hydrogen powered fuel-cell vehicles currently being tested look promising. The electricity used to charge batteries and produce the hydrogen must come from a renewable low-carbon or zero-carbon source from the likes of The London Array Scheme that has just been announced. Consisting of 340 turbines around 12 miles from the Essex/Kent coast, it will be the largest wind farm in the world.   

In conclusion, to tackle climate change, fleet and transport managers need to concentrate their efforts on:

  • Reducing vehicle use, using more efficient vehicles (including hybrid vehicles) and eco-friendly driver training, as noted in GreenFleet previously.
  • Sourcing biofuels only from UK sustainable feedstocks, paying particular notice to verified carbon savings.
  • Use of electric vehicles using only renewable low-carbon electricity as the power source.

Author’s profile
Mark Hurst has worked as an environmental scientist for over a decade, conducting research for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra, UK Government). During this period Hurst has spent time at Kumamoto and Hokkaido Universities in Japan, as a scientific representative of the UK Government. He has also worked at the Vrije University in Amsterdam and has conducted research for the WWF.

Numerous peer-reviewed papers by Hurst have been published in international scientific journals including Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Environmental Health Perspectives and The Science of the Total Environment. Currently, Hurst works freelance as an Environmental Consultant for a range of clients including the Norwegian Institute for Water Research and Green Recycling Ltd.

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