The Growth of Green Fuel

Land Use and Fresh Water Conservation Pivotal to Biofuel Success

Burning fossil fuels to power our world is the signal biggest contributor to the climate crisis [1]. Contributing to poor air quality, increasing temperatures and sea levels, and accelerating devasting climatic events. Reducing fossil fuel dependency will require a wholesale change in how grid energy is generated combined with a solution mix. It is this need to decarbonise which is driving the growth of green fuel generation and the energy crops that produce them. The problem is though, as demand for green fuels accelerates, so do the risks for land use change and freshwater consumption. Underlining why conservation is pivotal to biofuel success.

So, before celebrating this move away from fossil fuels, let’s take a closer look at the drivers and potential impact. See which energy solutions are emerging, and dig a little deeper into land and water usage.

 

Reluctance Rising

Whilst current data suggests that global investment in oil and gas remains high [2], pressures [3] to dial down spending and focus on renewable energy are increasing. And it’s not just the IPCC and a few activists but employees that are starting to push back [4]. Climate experts [5] [6] state that at current levels of activity, we are set to blow past the 1.5°C temperature outlined in the Paris Agreement.

More action is required to drive down emissions and curb rising temperatures.

 

Dirty yard with barrels of empty oil strewn around but for biofuel success it is imperative that land and fresh water conservation is managed.
A Future Without Oil – How Land and Water Use Will be Pivatol for Biofuel Success

 

In what has been described as the world’s greatest challenge, collaboration and partnership are key to success. Hot on the heels of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Biden administration announced the lowest-ever number of oil and gas leases issued in its history, [7, 8]. The EU bank stopped all financing for unabated fossil fuels [9] whilst, on the opposite side of the water, the UK government seems somewhat out of step. Confirming it will grant over 100 new licenses for oil and gas extractions, including the controversial Rosebank oil field [10].

A confusing position to take if the UK government are serious about achieving its 2050 Net Zero pledge and one that flies in the face of the recent report [11] by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Stating that there must be no new oil, gas or coal projects globally if we are to halt rising temperatures and meet the 2050 Net Zero goals [12].

 

Line chart prediction by the IES which forecasts the declining use of coal, oil and natural gas. Making room for an increase in green fuels as long as land and fresh water conservation are managed.
IEA Fossil Fuel Report 2023 – Declining Fossil Fuel Supplies 2022 – 2050 [11]

Declining Appetites Drive Growth of Green Fuels

So, whilst oil is set to play a significant albeit reducing role for many more years to come, we are witnessing a surge of new fuels emerging on the market. All with differing advantages and implications. Ethanol, biodiesel and renewable diesel are the main contenders, supported by a whole host of waste and organic feedstocks.

Alcohol-based bioethanol is made from corn and sugarcane. Whereas biodiesel is generated by the transesterification of animal fat, edible vegetable oils (soy, peanut, sunflower, palm oil and coconut oil), non-edible vegetable oils (rapeseed, jatropha, jojoba and waste cooking oil) and algae [13]. With composition profiles similar to fossil-derived diesel, [14] renewable diesel are the most interesting because they can be seamlessly introduced into existing supply chains. Typically known in the industry as ‘drop-in’ fuels, these renewable fuels offer significant benefits and meet the ASTM D975 directive [15].

In a bid to bridge the gap created by reducing fossil fuels, biofuel programmes are being accelerated around the world, with some studies suggesting that the biofuel sector will reach 17% of the transportation fuel by 2050. The International Energy Agency (IEA) go further still, suggesting it could be as high as 27% [17].  It is this green fuel growth that drives concerns around land use and freshwater consumption and why conservation will be pivotal to biofuel success.

 

Barchart that shows the usage of green fuels, including biofuels in both advance economies and emerging economies.
IEA, Biofuel demand growth by fuel and region, 2022-2024, IEA, Paris: source

Why Land Use and Fresh Water Conservation Pivotal to Biofuel Success

Whilst appearing to be a clean and wholesome solution, the growth of green fuel projects has a dark side. Land use change, the incentivisation of rainforest destruction, intensive use of fresh water and of course competition with food agriculture. Thus, making it crucial that policy changes and regulations are agreed upon and implemented. However, despite a change in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (REDIII), member states still seem more focused on quantity rather than quality [18], despite clear evidence linking soy and palm oil growth with deforestation and land clearing practices [19].

Reinforcing concerns around land use and freshwater conservation.

 

Orangutan with baby swigning through trees
Photo by Chris Charles on Unsplash

Land Conservation

Land use change and deforestation are major contributors to climate change. When forests are cleared, we reduce the planet’s ability to biologically fix carbon or convert carbon dioxide to oxygen through photosynthesis. By destroying these so-called ‘lungs’ of the earth, we also remove habitation for wildlife, increase the risk of flooding and upset the natural ecosystem rhythm.

Since the end of the last ice age, an area twice the size of the United States has been lost – that is over one-third of all global forests [20]. According to one study, reversing this act is not about just replanting any tree species either, but ensuring there is sufficient diversification in both plant and animal life to gain significant increases in carbon storage [21].

But competition for land is fierce, driven by an expanding population that needs feeding. Agriculture now uses nearly 50% of the habitable land on Earth, and crops account for 15% of that use [20]. Managing land use will be essential if we are to feed a population that could reach 11Bn by 2080 [22], whilst supporting a move away from fossil fuels with the introduction of energy crop biofuels.

 

Bar chart that shows how humans have destroyed one third of the world's forest by expanding agriculture. Supporting why land and fresh water conservation pivotal to biofuel success
Our World in Data: Source

 

Growing Opportunities for Biofuel

To prevent wholesale destruction of the very ecosystem that allows life to exist, we need a managed and regulated approach to land use and energy cultivation. Crop optimisation, waste reduction, careful selection of feedstock, and policies that offer incentives to avoid destruction. Whilst renewable fuels and biodiesels still release carbon when burnt, they can have added planetary benefits. One such example is the bioenergy carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) opportunities, resulting in carbon-negative fuels [23].

We need to separate out the much-debated food versus fuel conversation by focusing on marginal and unproductive land. Increasing co-productions that support both food and waste fuel streams and utilising second-generation biofuel feedstocks such as agriculture waste streams and forest residues [24] [25]. Better yet, invest in third and fourth-generation technologies such as algae-derived biofuels. Grown in enclosed bioreactors on barren land, they offer a greater energy density output, per hectare, than other crops, and can be co-located near refineries and industrial plants.

So, it seems plausible that good land use management, matched with cooperation and coordinated efforts can support a healthy green fuel expansion. But what about the elephant in the room – water scarcity?

 

Water Conservation Pivotal

The UN states that one in four people face shortages of drinking water, equating to a staggering two billion people. Whilst 70% of the earth is covered by water, only a minuscule amount is safe to drink (0.5%) [26, 27].  Compounded by inequitable distribution, an increasing population and climate change. These rising temperatures are melting ice caps and driving increased extreme weather events. Water resources are becoming increasingly scarce, impacted further by disruption to the ecosystem [30].

 Agriculture is the single biggest user of fresh water, consuming over 70% [28]. In Europe alone, it uses more than 50% of water availability [29].  Irrigation for farming and industrial demands are competing with a growing population. Denying many of the single and most basic need to sustain life. So, it seems clear that any increase in agriculture, to support both food and fuel production, could have devasting results for water availability.

The biggest issue facing water scarcity and its future management is data and the lack of integration. But there are many opportunities for improvement. Increased capture, waste reduction, and improvements in reprocessing and desalination plants. These, combined with energy crops that thrive in waste and seawater provide much-needed optimism.

 

Building Resilience with Biology 

In summary, green fuels offer an exciting opportunity for decarbonising transportation and heavy industry but only if they are well-regulated and executed with joined-up thinking. Innovation in advanced biofuels is welcomed, education in land and water use is a necessity and the development of incentives that encourage collaboration and good practice, essential.

 

If you are interested in learning more about HBx and how we are building green farms on unproductive land, get in touch

#FuellingOurFuturePlanet

 

Comments
Comments are closed.

Contact Us

Pop your contact details in the form below, along with a brief message and we will get back to you