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Increasing Biofuels In Petrol Tanks Could Accelerate Deforestation

Originally published on Transport & Environment.
By Eoin Bannon

Today’s announcement that the UK government will double from 5 to 10% the amount of ethanol that can be blended with petrol could cause as much environmental harm as good, green NGO Transport & Environment (T&E) has said.

The decision flies in the face of overwhelming evidence that liquid biofuels are not part of the solution to decarbonise road vehicles. Two-thirds of the ethanol added to petrol in the UK in 2020 came from food crops including wheat, corn and sugar beat. Just 18% of the ethanol ethanol used in the UK last year was made here with the remainder imported from 21 countries around the world. Turning food crops into liquid biofuels to burn in vehicle engines has been discredited, and is widely recognised to cause as much environmental harm as good.

In theory, the planned reopening of the Vivergo Fuels bioethanol plant and expansion of the Ensus facility could produce sufficient additional ethanol to meet the extra UK demand. But the Vivergo plant was mothballed in 2018 because it was uncompetitive compared to cheaper ethanol imports. It remains to be seen whether it is now able to compete in the global ethanol market. That will depend, to a large extent, on the vagaries of the weather and feedstock price. If UK wheat is too expensive to make ethanol in the UK, the higher content in petrol will come from imports.

Greg Archer, UK director of T&E, said: 

“This knee-jerk reaction from the Secretary of State for Transport fails to consider the multiple competing uses for land in the UK, including plans for new forests and more sustainable agriculture. If the Vivergo facility remains uncompetitive, the additional demand for biofuels will be overwhelmingly met by imports, including more sugar cane ethanol from Latin and South America, which accelerate deforestation of that region.

“The government has correctly identified electric cars powered by renewable North Sea wind as the way to decarbonise vehicles. The limited amounts of waste and residue-based biofuels available should be directed towards planes not petrol tanks.”

Featured image by Nathan Stephenson, USGS

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