Government raises renewable fuel obligation, caps crop-based fuel use

The UK Government has confirmed that it will increase the percentage of petrol and diesel that is sourced from renewables used for vehicle use, while the use of crops in fuel production will also be capped.

The Government announced on Thursday (14 September) that the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) had been amended to increase the percentage of renewable fuel in petrol and diesel to 10% by 2020. The amendments were issued after the Government reflected on consultations given by the industry.

The UK share for renewable market fuels had been held at 4.75% since 2012, but the latest amendment will increase it to 9.7% by 2020 and 12.4% by 2032. While this is beneficial for waste-based fuels such as cooking oil, the Government is introducing a crop cap that will reduce plant-based renewable fuels down to 2% by 2032.

The decision has been welcomed by the industry, but concerns remain that the latest amendments could stifle job growth in the biofuels sector. The fact that gas from anaerobic digestion – a potential low-carbon solution for heavy goods vehicles – has been excluded from a development fuels sub-target has also been questioned.

The Renewable Energy Association’s (REA) chief executive Nina Skorupska said: “The REA is pleased that the amount of renewable fuel will now be increased, which gives biofuels producers, especially those using waste as feedstock a bigger market to go for. However, the decision to decrease the use of sustainable crops in renewable fuel production to 2% raises the question whether fuel suppliers will supply an increasing amount of renewable bioethanol. 

“Our AD biogas producers will also be disappointed that their biomethane, largely derived from food and organic farm waste, will not qualify as a Development Fuel. Renewable gas can play a major role in decarbonising the heavy transport, a major contributor of carbon emissions.”

Crop-based fuels ‘on the way out’

The RTFO was introduced in 2008 to reduce the 95% share that fossil fuels had on the transport fuel mix. Since its introduction, more than £1bn has been invested in domestic manufacturing infrastructure for various renewable fuels.

The UK biofuels industry – largely comprising of biodiesel, bioethanol and biomethane – employs around 10,000 people and the REA is concerned that the crop cap could stunt potential growth.

In 2016, 46% of low-carbon fuels were derived from waste and residue biodiesel and 12% was from bioethanol sourced from surplus wheat and sugar beet. The REA claims that the Government’s own Transport Energy Task Force had lobbied for a 10% ruling for the crop-based bioethanol. Instead, it is being reduced down to 2%.

Requirements for renewable fuels include a minimum emissions saving requirement of 50% compared to fossil fuels and strict rules are in place on the feedstocks used to make renewable fuels. For example, UK blenders have ensured that no palm oil has been used in biofuels sold on the UK market. Concern is built on the fact that diesel vehicles burnt almost half of Europe’s palm oil in 2015.

Commenting on the findings, WWF’s biofuels and energy expert James Beard said: “The UK Government is right to cap crop-based biofuels well below the EU limit, but this 4% cap still means that UK fuel tanks are at risk from unsustainable biofuel imports. The overall signal is clear though – crop based biofuels are on their way out and rightly have no place in our future energy mix.

“However, the future of road transport is electrification, not biofuels. But, with electric planes still some way off, it makes sense to shift truly sustainable waste-based fuels away from cars and on to planes. Nevertheless, this is just a sticking plaster on our soaring aviation emissions. We urgently need a robust plan for tackling aviation CO2 before the UK Government can even contemplate expanding our airport capacity.”

Matt Mace

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