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Why do biofuels seem to be stalled?

Eco-friendly transport is a new sector with seemingly endless scope. One facet thereof is biofuel, which as Nicholas Wagner of IRENA explains, could play an important role in a green future.

Deutsche Welle: What role can biofuels play in the Paris climate agreement?

Nicholas Wagner: If you look at sustainability in the transport sector, there are several drivers: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, energy diversification, and technology development.

We've done analyses of the potential emissions mitigation impact of renewable technologies in transport, and biofuels can help. It depends on the country and the particular energy mix, and on how you quantify some of the life cycle aspects of biofuels.

The transport sector contributes around a third of total global energy demand, and we've estimated that biofuels could potentially make an impact of up to 10 or 15 percent of

transport-sector emissions


But we're seeing an emergence now of multiple drivers pushing the sustainability agenda in transport. These include climate, but also energy security or diversification of energy systems. And new technology developments are becoming a big driver: intelligent cars, self-driving cars, advanced conversion processes for biofuels. Many countries are keen on developing next-generation transport systems.

Lufthansa Airbus A321 jet being topped up with biofuel in Hamburg

Lufthansa and Virgin Airways both run small demonstration projects with biofuel for their jets

The biofuels sector doesn't have a positive image. In Europe, there has been debate about sustainability, especially regarding the impact that the resources required to grow crops to make biofuels have on biodiversity and food security. What's the state of debate on these issues now?

There needs to be a discussion - I'm speaking personally, not necessarily from the viewpoint of IRENA - about the use of biofuels, particularly in light of the emergence now of the very compelling case for electric mobility. In future, you might see electric mobility used in cities or urban areas, where you don't need a long range between refueling or recharging stops and don't need a fuel with high energy density.

You could deploy biofuels in places that lack battery-charging infrastructure for

electric vehicles

, or just in applications that need higher energy density, like heavy freight vehicles, shipping, or aviation.

You can look at what's emerging in transport as a smart, technology-driven industry. The electric vehicle segment includes not just passenger cars, it also includes two- and three-wheelers, which are huge in Asia and growing really quite astonishingly. And technology options are also emerging in electrified public transport.

Then there's the whole advanced biofuels side, which is a very technology-driven, process-driven industry that's using really interesting new production technologies to produce biofuels, in a sustainable way, from non-food feedstocks.

Nicholas Wagner of IRENA (Photo: Richard Fuchs)

Nicholas Wagner is a technical expert at IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency

So there's this rapidly changing technology landscape, and a discussion about what this means for the future of transport systems. It's not a question of either/or in the case of electric mobility or biofuels or biogas in transport. The right approach is "all of the above."

The transport sector today is roughly 97 percent fossil-fueled. According to IRENA's "REmap", or renewable energy road map, the renewables share only increases from 3 to roughly 5 or 6 percent, under a business-as-usual scenario. So there's a tremendous potential for further improvement if we embrace all these technologies.

What are the biggest stumbling blocks in the way of a really significant share for biofuels in the transport sector?

The challenge is in developing economies of scale - scaling up the demonstration plants to commercial production, which will drive down costs.

It's the same with any technology: if you produce very little, it's typically very expensive. As you increase the scale of production, the price comes down.

When will the debate "food versus fuel for transportation" be over?

Probably never. I think it's good if we always have an active and open discussion. But the potential for advanced biofuels that don't compete with food is growing. The most important thing when looking at the biomass supply chain is making sure food needs are met first, and then exploring options for energy crops afterward.

Interview: Richard Fuchs

Nicholas Wagner is an associate program officer at IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency. The interview has been condensed for ease of reading.

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