UN report gives sweeping overview of advanced biofuels

By Sue Retka Schill | February 25, 2016

Advanced biofuels can be exploited to meet sustainable development and climate change mitigation goals, says a new report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The report, “Second Generation Biofuel Markets: State of Play, Trade and Developing Country Perspectives," updates a similar 2014 survey.

With a specific focus on cellulosic ethanol, the report gives a global overview of current second-generation biofuels developments.  It discusses at length the U.S. industry, which has the largest installed capacity for cellulosic ethanol production and the greatest number of working second-generation biofuel facilities. Following the U.S. lead in second-generation biofuel facilities, in order, is China, Canada, the European Union and Brazil.

The report reviews advanced biofuels progress by country and region. The discussion on the United States reviews the various fuels under development, the role of biofuels in the U.S. transportation sector, along with a discussion on policy drivers. Similar discussions describe the development of the EU fuel directive and sustainability policies as well as Brazil’s policies and developments in the sugarcane ethanol industry. As of 2015, there were no cellulosic ethanol projects on the African continent and in Latin America (excluding Brazil), although progress has been made in bagasse-fired electricity co-generation and biomass cook stoves in these regions, the report says.

In the section on first generation biofuels and sustainability issues, the authors discuss approaches to reducing the risk from indirect land use change through things like increased yields, intercropping and crop rotation. Global in nature, the report also discusses the concerns in developing economies over the proper approach to bringing unused or degraded land into feedstock production as well as concerns about supporting rural development and small landholders. “The challenges of meeting feedstock supply through yield improvement and the expansion of feedstocks in more sustainable ways can be met,” the report says, “but only with secure and prolonged support and sensible, easily adoptable policies that recognize the environmental as well as economic objectives.” The policies are needed now, the report stresses, “along with strategies for increasing feedstock production in sustainable ways that can be implemented immediately.” It adds that the International Renewable Energy is developing a report on second-generation, as costs and production potentials are closely tied to conversion pathways.

The report concludes with five suggestions for the responsible development of the second-generation biofuels industry:

-Create regulatory frameworks for advanced bioenergy tailored to national circumstances, which do not necessarily focus on the type of supply but instead on the existing local demands, keeping sustainable development goals in mind.

-Promote joint ventures between domestic organizations and foreign companies to facilitate technology transfer and to avoid a large technological gap between first-generation, land-intensive feedstocks and second-generation, capital-intensive biofuels in developed and developing countries.

-Consider the broader aspects of bioeconomy sectors, including biomaterials, in ways that avoid locking industrial development paths into specific sectors or technologies. This would provide flexibility for market players that operate biorefineries as they could target multiple markets, including materials, feed, food, and energy—both domestic and internationally.

- Incorporate lessons from sustainability criteria applied for first-generation biofuels into near and mid-term sustainability provisions or labels for advanced biofuels.

- Continuously promote technical dialogue among different production regions of advanced fuels in order to ensure compatible standards for feedstock and promote trade in advanced biofuel.