How biofuels can play a bigger part in climate



We could look more to nature for answers to the climate crisis . But when it comes to the big beasts responsible for carbon emission, we favour solutions in the race to reduce these by 50% by 2050 at the latest

There are regular calls to cull cattle numbers to cut agriculture’s 35.4% share, pressure on us all to switch to electric cars (EVs) to reduce transport’s 20.4% share and the ongoing moves to switch to renewable sources like wind and solar powers for the energy and residential sector which together account for 26.3%. Together these three account for nearly three quarters of gasses hastening climate change.

These carbon cures are not without disadvantages. What are farmers to do if they lose their traditional livelihood dependant on cattle? Switching to EVs is costly, means scrapping existing vehicles, with snags include the short distances per charge, recharging hassles and the fact that batteries using lithium are bad news. Measures like installing solar panels for homes are expensive too.

But here is an alternative we don’t hear enough about: biofuels. These fall into two main categories: first generation biofuels made from food crops to produce ethanol, similar to the stuff we use for recreational drinking and plant oil and cooking oil which are used to make biodiesel and second generation or advanced biofuels made from non-edible biomass such as trees, grasses or agricultural waste.

The good news about advanced biofuels is that they offer a double advantage, helping to reduce CO2 emissions and offering farmers an alternative to raising cattle. Around two thirds of farms in Ireland are not viable, producing less than the average farm wage and may depend on non-farm income to make ends meet. Growing energy crops like miscanthus, willow or forestry for biomass could bring in  better returns than the typical beef.  Biomass can be used to produce fuel for transport or for heating in institutions like schools or hospitals or community schemes.

However, a supply chain still needs to be developed so that farmers can be paid for what they produce as they are in other agricultural sectors.  “In order to meet our renewable targets, we will require commercial structures which farmers are happy with,” says Barry Caslin, Environment and Technology advisor with Teagasc. “Biofuels are part of the jigsaw of technologies we can use to reach our targets to reduce emissions.”

Currently we are only scratching the service of what advanced biofuels could do – using just very high grade, easily available feedstocks like used cooking oil. But there is a huge range of viable feedstocks we could be using, and a very wide range of conversion technologies. Basically, any kind of waste plant matter is an excellent feedstock for conversion to advanced biofuel and for existing vehicles. “Biofuels are not new they have been in use for centuries fuelling lamps and stoves Even the first engine, Rudolf’s Diesel, was intended it to be run on peanut oil until petroleum was discovered and commercialised around one hundred years ago ,” says Dr Stephen Dooley Associate Professor of Energy Science at the School of Physics TCD. “Like petroleum fuels, biofuels have also seen enormous development over the last hundred years.  The varieties made with plant oil and used cooking oil are used to make biodiesel, and increasingly sustainable aviation fuel. Advanced biofuels have the potential to replace or substantially displace petrol and diesel fuel.”

First generation biofuels are part of the part of the climate action plan and are already in use as components of traditional petro-fuels. They saved Ireland around 520,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions last year, compared with an estimated 20,000 tonnes of savings from EVs. There are challenges to be overcome before biofuels can play a bigger part, one is price the end price to consumers as if too expensive it will contribute to energy poverty.  There are technological hurdles too if vehicles are to use more biofuel than the current 3-5 % in combination with petrol or diesel and there are supply chain challenges to be solved. Given official willingness and investment though, biofuels have the potential to play a much bigger part in the jigsaw puzzle of renewables and carbon reduction.

EVs are not the only way to go, especially if there is a cleaner, greener route dependant on natural crops. EVs exhausts cost both our pockets and the environment in their production while the motor industry laughs all the way to the bank.

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