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Sep 09, 2011

International collaboration critical to growing biofuels industry

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The establishment of a sustainable global biofuels industry will require international collaboration in many fields, the International Energy Agency (IEA) states in its latest ‘Technology Roadmap – Biofuels for Transport’ report.

Joint international efforts in field map- ping will result in better land-use data and improved analysis of global biomass potential, while combining existing technical knowledge with local expertise on indigenous crop species can assist crop-breeding efforts and large-scale field trials.

“The transfer of best practices for sustainable feedstock cultivation to regions with a lack of capacity in this field will assist small feedstock producers in complying with sustainability certification schemes and accessing international markets,” the report says.

Joint research, development and demonstration efforts to develop biofuels conversion processes need to be enhanced to ensure this capacity building and technology transfer.

The experience gained from publicly funded projects should be shared to promote access to technologies and knowledge for sustainable biofuels production.

“International collaboration to develop sound sustainability criteria and align certification schemes for biofuels and other biomass products should also be enhanced. This is critical to ensure the sustainable production of biofuels, as well as the marketability of biofuels with different certification schemes in different markets, which will boost the international biofuels trade,” the IEA explains.

Global alignment of technical standards, including fuel and vehicle standards, will improve biofuels and feedstock trade- ability, and the exchange of experiences between emerging markets and large bio- fuels-producing countries and regions, such as Brazil, the US and the European Union (EU) will help to avoid infrastructure barriers, allowing for the smooth introduction of biofuels into new markets.

Meanwhile, several countries outside the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development are already producing biofuels commercially, with Brazil, Argentina, China and Thailand being the most active, says the IEA.

Growing biofuels production and the increasing number of countries adopting biofuels support policies show that many developing countries are realising the potential socioeconomic benefits of pro- ducing and using biofuels.

However, to secure the biofuels developments envisioned in the IEA’s biofuels roadmap, it will be critical to consider the specific policy framework and particular needs of devel- oping countries.

Some developing countries have only recently started biofuels production and, in most African countries, there is currently no large-scale com- mercial biofuels production.

The key drivers of biofuels developments in many regions include the creation of new sources of income for rural communities and the potential to cut expenditures associated with importing petroleum products. Further, the potential exists to export biofuels to regions with strong demand, such as the US and the EU.

However, many developing countries face barriers, such as poor infrastructure, lack of skilled labour and formal land ownership structures and limited financial resources not conducive to the development of a viable, sustainable biofuels industry.

“The benefits of infrastructure investment, such as in road and rail infrastructure and electricity, can be increased when undertaken as part of an overall rural development strategy, with positive impacts on overall productivity,” the report says.

Given some of these coun- tries’ limited financial resources and lack of access to primary energy needs, the suitability of different types of biofuels has to be evaluated against other renewable-energy options that might be of higher priority in the short term.

A country’s focus, the IEA believes, should be on biofuels concepts that are technically less complex and do not require large investments. In the short term, feedstock trade might be an option for countries that do not have any biofuels pro- duction infrastructure or that produce surplus feedstock.

In the longer term, developing countries can profit from expe- riences with sustainable conventional biofuels production and adopt advanced biofuels technologies once they are commercially proven.

Developing countries may need foreign investment, as well as domestic funding to develop a viable biofuels sector. The report adds that administrative and governance challenges may affect large-scale foreign investment in developing countries; however, even if these challenges are less severe, foreign investment in biofuels projects might be constrained by the limited size of domestic markets.

Ensuring access to international markets for biofuels exports is likely to improve investor confidence, but this will require complying with sustainability standards in the importing countries. A key challenge is the broad number of sustainability schemes in key consuming countries.

“Developing countries should get actively involved in the devel- opment of internationally agreed sustainability criteria and certification schemes for bio- fuels production. A challenge is that certification costs are typically higher than in industrialised countries and can reach up to 20% of total production costs for smallholders,” the IEA points out.

This creates a need to couple certification requirements with financing and technical assistance that allows developing countries to master and apply certification schemes, improve the credibility of their assess- ment bodies and reduce costs for the certification of biofuels production.

The IEA’s ‘Technology Road-map-Biofuels for Transport’ report provides an overview of the current status of different conventional and advanced biofuels technologies and the latest research on sustainability issues related to biofuels production. It also charts a course for expanding the production and use of biofuels to 2050 in a sustainable way.

Edited by: Chanel de Bruyn
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