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The Biofuture Platform calls for action following drop in global biofuel output


November 23, 2020
By The Biofuture Platform

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The Biofuture Platform, a multi-stakeholder initiative facilitated by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and designed to take action on climate change by promoting international coordination on the sustainable low-carbon bioeconomy, has responded to the almost 12 per cent drop in biofuel output in 2020 announced in the IEA’s Renewables 2020 report.

The Platform, which is leading the call for urgent collaboration from policymakers and the private sector to reverse the drop, has labelled this as a potentially critical setback which could act as a barrier to green recovery and have long-term negative impacts on the de-carbonization of the transport sector.

The shrinking demand confirmed by the IEA earlier this week comes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first time the sector has declined in over two decades. Global biofuels production reached record levels in 2019, and before the crisis, biofuels were predicted to grow by three per cent this year. Production of fuel ethanol has been particularly adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic with the sector facing a 14.5 per cent contraction this year and a return to 2015 levels. Eighty per cent of this fall is found in the key markets of Brazil and the United States. By contrast, ethanol production is expected to remain stable in China.

A fall in crude oil prices at the start of the pandemic made biofuels less competitive than traditional fossil fuels, exacerbating the situation for renewable alternatives. Although the IEA warned of negative impacts from the pandemic for the entire renewables sector in its update in May of this year, much of the renewable power industry has adapted quickly to the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. This has led to a revised projected increase of seven per cent in renewable electricity and to a new world record in renewable capacity additions in 2020. This is in stark contrast with the significant drop in renewable transport, and to a lesser extent in renewable heating and cooling. Therefore, the Platform is calling for immediate action to catch up, so as to match record renewable power growth.

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Despite the contraction in 2020, the IEA’s report projects that transport biofuels could again reach 2019 levels in 2021 if supported by consistent policy initiatives and a rebound in global fuel demands. In line with these assumptions and if the pandemic begins to subside, output in 2022 could increase to 4% year on year, strengthened by keystone biofuel policies in Asian and South American countries. However, with the new waves of the pandemic it is likely that demand for transport fuels will continue to be affected in the first half of 2021 too. There is a consequent risk for a further delay in a biofuels rebound, if urgent action is not taken.

Long described by the IEA as an “overlooked giant of renewables,” bioenergy has a number of uses in the real economy, in transport and for heat production in industry and buildings. The IEA had previously highlighted that annual consumption of transport biofuels needs to triple by 2030 (to 324 Mtoe) to be on track with the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS). The Biofuture Platform is due to release its Policy Blueprint in 2021, but this week’s figures have led members to call for efforts to urgently accelerate policy action.

The Platform urges countries, governments and corporations to implement its Five Principles for Post-COVID Bioeconomy Recovery, which would not only accelerate the de-carbonization of the energy sector but also create jobs. The IEA Sustainable Recovery Plan shows that biofuels could be a very cost-effective way to create employment in the energy sector, as they have the second-largest number of jobs (15-30) created per million dollars of spending.