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R&D to play a key role in meeting biofuel target, say panellists

Further research and development (R&D) into existing and second generation biofuel technologies, alongside a revision of national research strategies, are needed if Europe is to meet its ambitious energy targets, warned panellists at a seminar in the European Parliament in Bru...

Further research and development (R&D) into existing and second generation biofuel technologies, alongside a revision of national research strategies, are needed if Europe is to meet its ambitious energy targets, warned panellists at a seminar in the European Parliament in Brussels on 14 May. In March, Europe's Heads of State and Government signed up to an unprecedented common energy policy aimed at accelerating the shift to a low-carbon economy. They agreed, among other measures, to a binding target of increasing EU energy consumption from renewable sources to 20% by 2020. They also agreed to increase the share of biofuels used in transport to 10% by the same date. In order to meet these targets, all speakers at the Parliament seminar agreed that it was time to move away from the headline challenge of climate change, where a consensus had already been reached, towards the policy areas and actions needed on a day-to-day basis to address depleting natural resources, rising oil prices and security of supply issues. 'The energy sector is obviously in the front line in the fight against climate change because the energy we produce and consume accounts for two-thirds of all the CO2 [carbon dioxide] we put into the atmosphere,' said Graham Watson of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which organised the seminar jointly with the Parliament's Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee. He warned that failure to cut emissions by the 60% that scientists say is necessary would not only spell environmental disaster, but could also reduce global GDP by up to 20%. 'So the shift to low-carbon fuel is going to be particularly important, with transport emissions forecasted to grow by 77 million tonnes between 2005 and 2020, more than any other sector. And that is where bio-energy comes in,' noted Mr Watson. Biofuels are currently considered a major viable alternative to oil and could help towards emissions savings of up to 70% of current levels. Mr Watson hoped that the binding targets would encourage Member States to invest in biofuel technology development. Last year biofuels made up only 1% of market share in fuels across the EU. 'Yet if we are going to move from 1% to 10% of fuel provided by bioenergy, you cannot rely solely on initiatives carried out at EU level; governments have to work with businesses to prepare industry and their products for the shift that's coming. That might involve using market-based incentives, adapting our standards to accommodate biofuel technology, modifying the fuel quality directive to promote greener energy.' R&D will also be an important policy tool to encourage the development of existing and second-generation biofuel technologies. Currently the two main players in the market, bioethanol and biodiesel, are made from cereals, soybean, rape seed oil, sugar cane and palm oil. Second generation fuels use non-food crops such as straw and waste lumber, which are more energy efficient, require less land use, offer higher CO2 reduction, are cheaper, and offer greater energy security. Areas where Mr Watson believes future research should focus include enzyme technologies, conversion of agricultural waste to cellulosic ethanol and anaerobic digestion. 'We believe along with Commissioner Potocnik that we can turn Europe into the workshop for a greener world,' he said. Björn Tillenius of the Swedish Energy Agency also agreed that R&D, particularly that supported by the public sector, would help meet the short and long-term needs of the bioenergy sector. He said that given the ambitious nature of the new targets, Member States and the EU would have to go back and review their respective R&D strategies. What will emerge is that energy R&D will move up the agenda, and energy and cost efficient CO2-neutral technologies will be given more weight, he surmised. Mr Tillenius argued that the focus of any energy R&D strategy should be on specific energy policy objectives. He expressed doubt over the proposal to establish a Joint Technology Initiative (JTI) on hydrogen and fuel cells, questioning its validity and asking to which energy policy objective it would respond. But policies and incentives do not have to be technology specific, believes Maja Wessels of Honeywell, a multinational corporation that produces, among other products, biofuels. 'We need a diversity of approaches; not legislation that creates winners and losers,' she argued. She pointed to the case of green diesel, which is produced through a reaction with hydrogen, as opposed to biodiesel, which uses methanol. 'A few years ago no-one was interested in green diesel, now it is coming to market and considered to be the fuel of choice by the car industry. 'We need technology neutrality for policy and incentives so that we have technologies competing against one another allowing the users of those fuels to decide which is the best for them,' said Ms Wessels. To create a sustainable biofuels economy in which all these fuels can compete will also require further investment in R&D and engineering, said Ms Wessels. A recent report from the UN highlighted how some raw materials used in first generation biofuels, such as palm oil, were having a detrimental impact on the environment and leading to rises in food prices in developing countries. Focusing R&D on second-generation biofuels would help to accelerate the transition from existing fuels, thus helping to diminish their impact on climate change and competition with food crops, said Ms Wessels. Public money should also go to funding demonstration projects, said Ms Wessels. 'A lot can be learned from commercial demonstrations; not everything about biofuels can be learned in the lab,' she concluded.