Cleaner fuels are necessary to tackle climate change

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Sugarcane ethanol production, Brazil. [Sweeter Alternative/Flickr]

With transport emissions in the spotlight, the EU needs to nuance its approach to biofuels and consider complementary options to electrification if it wants to cut emissions in the near future, writes Géraldine Kutas.

Géraldine Kutas is Head of International Affairs at the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA).

Imagine that it is Monday, 14 December. A new week is starting. A few days ago, after two weeks of intense rounds of negotiations, world leaders reached a binding agreement to help limit global warming to around 2.7°C. Everyone is happy with it. Poor countries, richer countries, experts, NGOs. It’s over. Finally, a successful COP.

True, it’s less than the original goal of 2°C, but it’s an important step, and the good news is that they agreed to include a five-year review clause, meaning that we actually have a shot at reaching the initial objective in the future, if governments agree to increase their ambition. Everyone can finally rest and prepare for the Christmas holidays.

Soon, it’ll be 2016. So now what?

Say the scenario above happens. Reaching an agreement and committing to honouring it is the first step to dealing with climate change. The second is turning that agreement into reality. We keep hearing that everyone has to play a part in decarbonising the global economy; 2016 will be the year we’ll have to put our money where our mouth is.

The IEA recently released data showing how the global demand for transport fuels has risen systematically since the early 1970s. Realistically, an agreement at COP21 is not going to change this trend anytime soon. Global economies will continue to develop, and so will the number of vehicles on the road and their related emissions.

What we can do however is to make sure that the demand for cleaner transport fuels rises and that their share in the fuel mix increases as well. In other words, we need to make sure the carbon intensity of transport does not follow the same path as its growth, but rather the opposite.

Fuel efficiency gains have been and will continue to be made, but they are likely to be outpaced by demand growth. So, solving the transport emissions issue will have to be dealt with by other means, one of which is using the cleanest biofuels.

The government of Brazil has clearly stated in its climate pledge that the transport sector will have to contribute to the effort, and that it will rely on sugarcane ethanol for this. Why? Because a litre of sugarcane ethanol emits on average 90% less CO? than petrol, and reduces local pollutants when compared to diesel.

It is simply the easiest and cheapest way to reduce emissions in the sector, which is why Brazil has indicated in its INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) that it would increase the share of sustainable biofuels in the Brazilian energy mix to 18% in 2030 to reduce transport emissions in the country. More specifically, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said sugarcane ethanol and other derivatives would account for 16% of the energy mix in 2030.

At EU level, the debate around biofuels has momentarily stopped with the closure of the ILUC file in April this year. However, transport remains one of the key sectors where emissions cuts will be required in order to meet the 40% GHG emission reduction EU target by 2030. In 2016, the EU will look at transport as one of the three non-ETS sectors (along with buildings and agriculture) where emissions cuts can and must be achieved.

One major issue remains open though. No differentiation is made amongst first generation biofuels. Yet, there are those which have adverse consequences on the environment, but also the ones which are actually sustainable, such as sugarcane ethanol. Never mind the fact that sugarcane residues are also used to produce second-generation biofuels and bioelectricity. The absence of distinction hurts one of the cleanest available transport fuels in the world today.

At EU level, one opportunity to make full use of the advantages of sugarcane ethanol will be the review of the RED, in which a distinction between low- and high-ILUC biofuels can and should be made. This may seem like just a nuance, but it is critical in order to give a role to sustainable first generation biofuels. Recognising this simple fact would make it easy to seize the low-hanging fruit that they are, given how easy it is to blend them to reduce the carbon intensity of other transport fuels for which demand will rise.

One may think that sugarcane ethanol is there to compete with electric vehicles. The opposite is true in fact. We believe that the use of sustainable biofuels is actually complementary with electrification of mobility. Realistically, liquid fuels will retain an important – perhaps the biggest – role in transport in various combinations. Our conviction is that hybrid ‘electric + low-ILUC biofuels’ vehicles will be the optimal formula to cut emissions in transport by 2030. We want to be part of the solution.

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