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Does the 2040 ban on new petrol and diesel cars mean the end for biofuels?


Does the 2040 ban on new petrol and diesel cars mean the end for biofuels?


A significant step towards honouring the UK Climate Change Act, which commits the UK to carbon emission reductions of 80% (on 1990 levels) by 2050, was announced this week when the UK government introduced a ban on new diesel and petrol cars by 2040. The announcement hit the news at a critical time, when the future of decarbonising the transport sector is uncertain in other countries. Electrification of road transport will involve a transition towards the replacement of cars run on fossil fuels. The new ban could therefore be seen as implying a complete elimination of liquid fuels (including biofuels).

Liquid biofuels are obtained from biomass (such as wood, forestry products, agricultural wastes, forestry or fishery products, and biodegradable industrial and municipal waste, including used cooking oil). Although they have hit the headlines in recent years, their large-scale use dates back to the 70s when they were introduced in Brazil where the government incentivised the development of vehicles that could run on 100% ethanol. Biofuels have since enjoyed varying fortunes, becoming popular in the 1990s as a consequence of the raise in the oil price. In more recent times, more than 60 countries worldwide have launched biofuel production programmes, as a response to their commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The report, Sustainability of Liquid Biofuels (, recently published by the Royal Academy of Engineering and commissioned by the Department of Transport and the then Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), clarifies the role that biofuels can play in current energy policy and examines the future challenges associated with their use. One of the report’s conclusions is that biofuels will undoubtedly play an important role in meeting the UK`s commitments towards climate change; however, their production and use would require a very carefully regulated approach to avoid risks and unwanted consequences. Issues such as competition between food and fuel for land use are definitely possible consequent risks; however, the study also concludes that, if these risks are properly managed, they can result in positive outcomes. As an example, the addition of a biofuels market can benefit the agricultural sector by providing an extra incentive to plant crops, investment in process efficiencies and crop yields. Additionally, it might imply more land devoted to plant crops.

The Academy’s study was undertaken over the course of the past year with the final report being launched in early July. The announcement of the 2040 ban on new petrol or diesel cars obviously raises the question of whether this means the end of liquid biofuels.

In order to answer this question, the Academy’s report should not be seen in isolation, with a previous Academy report on electric vehicles ( published in 2010 providing further evidence to help clarify the context and the role of electric vehicles. Without trying to condense into a few lines a complex and comprehensive study, two issues should be noted: hybrid vehicles and road transportation.

Hybrid vehicles: the transition towards complete electrification will likely happen through the development of hybrid cars, namely cars that run with both electrically recharged batteries and liquid fuels. If the commitment is to move towards the complete ban of fossil fuels for transportation, then biofuels will be likely to be used in the newly developed hybrid vehicles.

Road transportation: the transport system involves far more than personal road transport alone; aviation, shipping and haulage are all significant parts of the transport system and these sectors are much more limited in their options for low-carbon energy. Electrifying such sectors is not an option at present and they will rely heavily on liquid fuel for the foreseeable future. Liquid fuels will still be required and the need for low-carbon liquid fuels will remain an imperative.

In conclusion, based on the findings in the Academy’s reports, the UK government can and should increase the levels of biofuels required in our fuel pool. Of course, as pointed out above, biofuels are not immune from risks and unwanted consequences. The report supports some crucial steps that must be taken to adequately manage the risks involved, including avoiding over-incentivising biofuels from food crops and continuing to incentivise the development of second-generation biofuels derived from wastes and agricultural, forest and sawmill residues, followed by dedicated energy crops.

Investing in and increasing biofuel production will enable the UK industry to build on its existing capacity to develop the advanced, low-carbon fuels needed in key and expanding sectors such aviation. The 2040 ban, far from meaning the end of liquid biofuels, if the steps laid out by the Academy’s report are taken, will imply biofuels playing a role in a low-carbon future for the UK transport.

copyright Raffaella Ocone July 2017

A version of this article was published in the Conversation on July 26th 2017

 Image copyright Nur Adullah 2014 used with permission

Raffaella Ocone is Professor of Chemical Engineering in the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University. Her research interests include the hydrodynamics of granular materials and particle laden flow;the kinetics and thermodynamics of multi-component mixtures; carbon capture by chemical looping combustion; and the pyrolysis of biomass






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