Decarbonising liquid fuels and chemicals

In its Statistical Review of World Energy, published recently, BP describes how almost 40% of the growth in global power generation in 2016 has come from renewables. Denmark leads, with 59% of power coming from renewables. Electricity generated using biomass from forests, is included in the 40%.  The Scandinavians have a long history of sustainable forest management. They have maintained or even increased their forest coverage whilst using wood for energy, paper, chemicals and biofuels. They have built an industry that makes the most off their natural resources and supports low carbon, sustainable development. 

But what about countries that have much larger populations and have more land devoted to agriculture than forestry? Agriculture In Europe and the US has become so efficient that farmers can grow surpluses. Policies were developed to support farmers to use spare land to grow oil and sugar/starch crops for biofuels and bio-based chemicals. Europe seems to have lost sight of this idea in a panic about food v fuel and the belief that electricity from wind, solar and hydro is the answer to all decarbonisation problems.

A key benefit of biofuels is that they provide low carbon liquid fuels for uses which are hard to decarbonise with electricity, mainly aviation and heavy transport.  The EU has acknowledged this. Sugars and oils from crops can also be a feedstock for the chemicals industry. Chemicals and plastics made from hydrocarbons are essential for daily life.  Opponents of biofuels and bio-based chemicals from crops say that we can use waste materials until renewable electricity is cheap enough to use it to recycle CO2 back to plastics, chemicals and synthetic fuels.  But this argument ignores some fundamental facts. First of all CO2 in the atmosphere and in combustion emissions is dilute. It has to be separated from the other gases in an initial step that requires energy. Secondly, CO2 is a stable and unreactive molecule. Even making simple hydrocarbons is energy and capital intensive. Last year I reviewed the progress on CO2 chemistry  since I first worked on formic acid from CO2 and hydrogen over 25 years ago. 

Nature transforms CO2 to chemicals much more efficiently than we have managed to do so far. The process is called photosynthesis. So why not save ourselves all of the capital cost for the chemical facilities and the electricity generation and let the sun and natural photosynthesis do it for us?  More importantly we will be supporting the rural economy in both the developing and the developed world.  Developing countries are relying on agriculture to provide a living for their citizens. The NGO WWF is trying to publicise the positive role that agricultural commodities play .  They have recently pointed out that 45% of palm oil in Indonesia is produced by smallholders who rely on the industry to lift them out of poverty.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently said that food-based biofuels are not necessarily bad as they support rural development . 

Of course, agriculture, like forestry in Scandinavia, must be managed sustainably, whilst protecting people’s rights. 

In European sustainable energy week, we should recognize the role that agriculture has to play in decarbonising  liquid fuels and chemicals. 










Published: 20 June 17

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