Biofuels have a role to play in meeting the UK’s commitments to climate change mitigation, especially so-called second generation biofuels made from wastes and by-products of other sectors, according to a major new review of the sustainability pros and cons of biofuels by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Such fuels can be sustainable and could make a real impact in reducing carbon emissions, although action is needed to manage the risks involved, improve traceability and avoid fraudulent practice.

The report, Sustainability of liquid biofuels, was commissioned by the Department of Transport and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (now the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) to provide advice on the UK’s future strategy for the development of biofuels. While they have been enthusiastically adopted in some countries, notably Brazil, first generation biofuels manufactured from crops like corn have proved controversial. There have been concerns that 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.

Download the report: Sustainability of liquid biofuels (8.00 MB)

The Academy report finds that we now understand much more about what specific crops and regions pose a high risk of land-use change and how these risks can be managed, and it sees a continued role for biofuels from some agricultural feedstocks. However, it also calls on government to incentivise the development of second generation biofuels in the UK, in the first instance those derived from wastes and agricultural, forest and sawmill residues. These might include converting waste cooking oil, municipal solid waste, the dregs from whisky manufacture or even fatbergs - the bane of sewer management companies - into useful fuel. Growing energy crops is also recommended, particularly where it can be done on marginal land that is unsuitable for food production, housing or has been degraded through deforestation. These sources of biofuel can most effectively avoid the risk of land use change and more generally make use of biomass and land areas that would otherwise have little or no value.

However, it is vital that the sector is properly regulated with clear and consistent categorisation of wastes and residues to help avoid unintended market distortions within the UK and internationally. Accreditation standards are currently voluntary and while some bodies such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomass have developed comprehensive standards covering social, economic and environmental aspects, much of the industry works to minimum standards. The Academy wishes to see more comprehensive requirements imposed on issues such as traceability to guard against fraud. Requirements should also cover social and economic impacts such as labour conditions.

In a bid to meet the EU target of 10% by 2020, fuel suppliers are already blending biofuels into the petrol and diesel we use in our road transport, up to a level of 4.75%. The Academy recommends increasing the level of biofuels required under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) in order to help meet climate change mitigation targets. This will also drive the development of the sector and help it develop the fuels needed to decarbonise particularly challenging sectors such as aviation, shipping and haulage, where there are few other low-carbon options.

The report also recommends evaluation of other sustainability issues beyond the carbon footprint of biofuels, including competitiveness of biofuels with fossil fuels, food, energy and water security, employment provision, rural development and human health impacts. Health effects are particularly important in view of the current debate on urban emissions from diesel vehicles.

Professor Adisa Azapagic FREng, Chair of the Academy’s working group on biofuels, says: “Second generation biofuels offer real prospects for the UK to make progress in reducing emissions from transport, particularly in sectors like aviation where liquid fuels are really the only option for the foreseeable future. Our report shows that, with the right safeguards and monitoring, biofuels from waste in particular are well worth pursuing from a sustainability point of view and also provide business opportunities for development.”

Notes for editors

  1. The Academy’s report, Sustainability of liquid biofuels, was produced by a working group of Fellows and experts supported by Academy staff:
    - Professor Adisa Azapagic FREng, Professor of Sustainable Chemical Engineering, The University of Manchester (Chair)
    - Professor Jim Hall FREng, Director, Environmental Change Institute and Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks, University of Oxford; Adaptation Subcommittee of the Committee on Climate Change
    - Dr Rebecca Heaton, Head of Sustainability and Policy at Drax Power; Member of the Committee on Climate Change
    - Professor Roger Kemp MBE FREng, Professorial Fellow, Lancaster University
    - David Lemon, David Lemon Consultants, UK
    - Professor Raffaella Ocone FREng, Professor of Chemical Engineering, School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, Heriot-Watt University
    - Professor Nilay Shah FREng FRSE, Professor of Process Systems Engineering and Director, Centre for Process Systems Engineering (CPSE), Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, Imperial College London
    - Professor Pete Smith FRSB FRSE, Professor of Soils and Global Change, Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen
    - Professor Joshua Swithenbank FREng, Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering and Fuel Technology, Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, University of Sheffield; Chairman: University of Sheffield Waste Incineration Centre; Energy and Environment Engineering
  2. Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK’s national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK’s role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK’s world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook.

    We have four strategic challenges:
    - Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
    - Address the engineering skills crisis
    - Position engineering at the heart of society
    - Lead the profession

For more information please contact:

Jane Sutton at the Royal Academy of Engineering
T: 020 7766 0636
E: Jane Sutton