Category Archives: biofuels

From Savior to Villain: Biofuel from Palm Oil

Globally, average palm oil yields have been more or less stagnant for the last 20  years, so the required increase in palm oil production to meet the  growing demand for biofuels  has come from deforestation and peat destruction in Indonesia.  Without fundamental changes in governance, we can expect at least a third of new palm oil  area to require peat drainage, and a half to result in deforestation.

Currently, biofuel policy results in 10.7  million tonnes of palm oil demand.  If the current biofuel policy continues we expect by 2030:
• 67 million tonnes palm oil demand due to biofuel policy.
• 4.5 million hectares deforestation.
• 2.9 million hectares peat loss.
• 7 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions over 20 years, more than total annual U.S. GHG emissions.
It must always be remembered that the primary purpose of biofuel policy in the EU and many  other countries is climate change mitigation. Fuel consumers in the European Union, Norway  and elsewhere cannot be asked to continue indefinitely to pay to support vegetable oil based
alternative fuels
that exacerbate rather than mitigate climate change.

The use of palm oil-based biofuel should be  reduced and ideally phased out entirely.  In Europe, the use of biodiesel other than that produced from approved waste or  by-product feedstocks should be reduced or eliminated.
In the United States, palm oil biodiesel should continue to be restricted from generating  advanced RINs under the Renewable Fuel Standard. Indonesia should reassess the relationship between biofuel mandate, and its  international climate commitments, and refocus its biofuel programme on advanced biofuels from wastes and residues. The aviation industry should focus on the development of advanced aviation biofuels  from wastes and residues, rather than hydrotreated fats and oils.

Excerpts from Dr Chris Malins,  Driving deforestation: The impact of expanding palm oil demand through biofuel policy, January 2018

In Feb. 28, 2019, Norway’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, pulled out of more than 33 palm oil companies over deforestation risks.

Cleaning Up Dirty Shipping

Making shipping cleaner is made more urgent by the decision of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the United Nations body responsible for the world’s shipping, to reduce the amount of sulphur allowed in bunker fuel from 3.5% to 0.5% by 2020. Sulphur is nasty stuff. When burned, it forms sulphates, which cause acid rain and pollute the air. A paper published in February 2017 in Nature Communications, by Mikhail Sofiev of the Finnish Meteorological Institute, found that the imo’s new rule could stop between 139,000 and 396,000 premature deaths a year.

The trouble is that sulphates also scatter sunlight and help to form and thicken clouds, which reflect solar radiation away from Earth. As a result, shipping is thought to reduce rather than increase man-made global warming—by 7% throughout the 20th century, according to one study. Dr Sofiev’s research showed that this cooling effect could fall by 80% after 2020, with the new low-sulphur standard in place…

The obvious way to offset the loss of sulphur-related cooling is by steep cuts to shipping’s planet-cooking carbon-dioxide emissions. The IMO wants these to fall by half, compared with 2008 levels, by 2050, regardless of how many vessels then ply the seas. But unlike desulphurisation, which is both imminent and legally binding, the CO2 target looks fuzzy and lacks any enforcement mechanism. An attempt to begin fleshing it out, at a meeting of  IMO member states which concluded in London on October 26, 2018 foundered.

One way to cut fuel consumption is to reduce drag by redesigning hulls and propellers. This is happening. In the past five or so years many ships’ propellers have been fitted with tip fins analogous to the turbulence-reducing upturned winglets on aeroplanes.  Further percentage points can be shaved away by smoothing hulls. This means, in particular, stopping barnacles and other creatures growing on them. Tin-based antifouling paints are now banned as toxic to sea life, so paintmakers are returning to an 18th-century solution to the fouling problem—copper.   Hulls can be scraped smooth, too, but restrictions on littering waters with paint chips and species from foreign parts have made such cleaning problematic. This may change, though, thanks to an underwater drone described by its Norwegian maker, ecosubsea, as “a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a lawnmower”. Rather than scour hulls with a metal brush, ecosubsea’s robots blast water at an angle almost parallel with the hull’s surface, which mostly spares paint from abrasion but hits marine growth perpendicularly, and thus hard. 

Many have hopes of returning to wind propulsion, and engineers have devised various modern versions of the sail. None has yet succeeded. A system developed by SkySails, a firm in Hamburg, for example, relied on kites to pull ships along. It was installed on five ships from 2008-11, but proved fiddly to use and maintain…

Some hope to cut marine emissions by employing batteries and electric motors. For transoceanic shipping this looks a long-shot. But local shipping might benefit. Norway, for instance, has started to introduce battery-powered ferries. And a Dutch company called Port-Liner is building electric canal barges for transporting shipping containers. The technology is expensive. Without taxpayer subsidy it would hardly be a runner—a fact also true of the Norwegian ferries.

The problem of shifting emissions around rather than eliminating them also applies to the idea of powering ocean-going vessels using fuel-cells. These generate electricity by reacting hydrogen and oxygen together. Given that electric propulsion more usually disguises emissions than eliminates them, some suggest the most practical approach to reducing shipping’s contribution to global warming is to switch to low-carbon fuel systems rather than conducting a futile search for no-carbon fuels. One alternative is diesel-electric propulsion.  Liquefied natural gas (lng) is another option. 

Excerpts  from Marine Technology of the Future: In Need for a Cean Up, Economist,  Nov. 3, 2018, at 75

Furthest from their Minds: greenhouse gases in Afirca

When sub-Saharan Africa comes up in discussions of climate change, it is almost invariably in the context of adapting to the consequences, such as worsening droughts. That makes sense. The region is responsible for just 7.1% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, despite being home to 14% of its people. Most African countries do not emit much carbon dioxide. Yet there are some notable exceptions.

Start with coal-rich South Africa, which belches out more carbon dioxide than Britain, despite having 10m fewer people and an economy one-eighth the size. Like nearly all of its power plants, many of its vehicles depend on coal, which is used to make the country’s petrol (a technique that helped the old apartheid regime cope with sanctions). A petrochemical complex in the town of Secunda owned by Sasol, a big energy and chemicals firm, is one of the world’s largest localised sources of greenhouse gases.  Zambia is another exception. It burns so much vegetation that its land-use-related emissions surpass those of Brazil, a notorious—and much larger—deforester.

South Africa and Zambia may be extreme examples, but they are not the region’s only big emitters . Nigerian households and businesses rely on dirty diesel generators for 14GW of power, more than the country’s installed capacity of 10GW. Subsistence farmers from Angola to Kenya use slash-and-burn techniques to fertilise fields with ash and to make charcoal, which nearly 1bn Africans use to cook. This, plus the breakneck growth of extractive industries, explains why African forests are disappearing at a rate of 0.5% a year, faster than in South America. Because trees sequester carbon, cutting them counts as emissions in climate accounting.

Other African countries are following South Africa’s lead and embracing coal…A new coal-fired power plant ….Lamu in Kenya is one of many Chinese-backed coal projects in Africa…Africa’s sunny skies and long, blustery coastlines offer near-limitless solar- and wind-energy potential. But what African economies need now are “spinning reserves”, which can respond quickly to volatile demand, says Josh Agenbroad of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think-tank in Colorado. Fossil fuels deliver this; renewables do not…. Several countries are intrigued by hybrid plants where most electricity is generated by solar panels, but diesel provides the spinning reserves…

Excerpts from  Africa and Climate Change: A Burning Issue, Economist,  Apr. 21, 2018, at 41.

Deforestation Tolerance: Amazon

Amazon generates approximately half of its own rainfall by recycling moisture 5 to 6 times as airmasses move from the Atlantic across the basin to the west.  From the start, the demonstration of the hydrological cycle of the Amazon raised the question of how much deforestation would be required to cause this hydrolological cycle to degrade to the point of being unable to support rain forest ecosystems.

High levels of evaporation and transpiration that forests produce throughout the year contribute to a wetter atmospheric boundary layer than would be the case with non-forest.This surface-atmosphere coupling is more important where large-scale factors for rainfall formation are weaker, such as in central and eastern Amazonia. Near the Andes, the impact of at least modest deforestation is less dramatic because the general ascending motion of airmasses in this area induces high levels of rainfall in addition to that expected from local evaporation and transpiration.

Where might the tipping point be for deforestation-generated degradation of the hydrological cycle? The very first model to examine this question  showed that at about 40% deforestation, central, southern and eastern Amazonia would experience diminished rainfall and a lengthier dry season, predicting a shift to savanna vegetation to the east.

Moisture from the Amazon is important to rainfall and human wellbeing because it contributes to winter rainfall for parts of the La Plata basin, especially southern Paraguay, southern Brazil, Uruguay and central-eastern Argentina; in other regions, the moisture passes over the area, but does not precipitate out. Although the amount contributing to rainfall in southeastern Brazil is smaller than in other areas, even small amounts can be a welcome addition to urban reservoirs…

In recent decades, new forcing factors have impinged on the hydrological cycle: climate change and widespread use of fire to eliminate felled trees and clear weedy vegetation. Many studies show that in the absence of other contributing factors, 4° Celsius of global warming would be the tipping point to degraded savannas in most of the central, southern, and eastern Amazon. Widespread use of fire leads to drying of surrounding forest and greater vulnerability to fire in the subsequent year.

We believe that negative synergies between deforestation, climate change, and widespread use of fire indicate a tipping point for the Amazon system to flip to non-forest ecosystems in eastern, southern and central Amazonia at 20-25% deforestation.

We believe that the sensible course is not only to strictly curb further deforestation, but also to build back a margin of safety against the Amazon tipping point, by reducing the deforested area to less than 20%, for the commonsense reason that there is no point in discovering the precise tipping point by tipping it. At the 2015 Paris Conference of the Parties, Brazil committed to 12 million ha of reforestation by 2030. Much or most of this reforestation should be in southern and eastern Amazonia.

Excerpts from Amazon Tipping Point  by Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, Sciences Advances,  Feb. 21, 2018

Deforestation and Supply Chains

366 companies, worth $2.9 trillion, have committed to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains, according to the organization Supply Change. Groups such as the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, the Consumer Goods Forum and Banking Environment Initiative aim to help them achieve these goals.  Around 70 percent of the world’s deforestation still occurs as a result of production of palm oil, soy, beef, cocoa and other agricultural commodities. These are complex supply chains.  A global company like Cargill, for example, sources tropical palm, soy and cocoa from almost 2,000 mills and silos, relying on hundreds of thousands of farmers. Also, many products are traded on spot markets, so supply chains can change on a daily basis. Such scale and complexity make it difficult for global corporations to trace individual suppliers and root out bad actors from supply chains.

Global Forest Watch (GFW), a WRI-convened partnership that uses satellites and algorithms to track tree cover loss in near-real time, is one example. Any individual with a cell phone and internet connection can now check if an area of forest as small as a soccer penalty box was cleared anywhere in the world since 2001. GFW is already working with companies like Mars, Unilever, Cargill and Mondelēz in order to assess deforestation risks in an area of land the size of Mexico.

Other companies are also employing technological advances to track and reduce deforestation. Walmart, Carrefour and McDonalds have been working together with their main beef suppliers to map forests around farms in the Amazon in order to identify risks and implement and monitor changes. Banco do Brasil and Rabobank are mapping the locations of their clients with a mobile-based application in order to comply with local legal requirements and corporate commitments. And Trase, a web tool, publicizes companies’ soy-sourcing areas by analyzing enormous amounts of available datasets, exposing the deforestation risks in those supply chains…

[C]ompanies need to incorporate the issue into their core business strategies by monitoring deforestation consistently – the same way they would track stock markets.

With those challenges in mind, WRI and a partnership of major traders, retailers, food processors, financial institutions and NGOs are building the go-to global decision-support system for monitoring and managing land-related sustainability performance, with a focus on deforestation commitments. Early partners include Bunge, Cargill, Walmart, Carrefour, Mars, Mondelēz, the Inter-American Investment Corporation, the Nature Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance and more.  Using the platform, a company will be able to plot the location of thousands of mills, farms or municipalities; access alerts and dashboards to track issues such as tree cover loss and fires occurring in those areas; and then take action. Similarly, a bank will be able to map the evolution of deforestation risk across its whole portfolio. This is information that investors are increasingly demanding.

Excerpt from Save the Forests? There’s Now an App for That, World Resources Institute, Jan. 18, 2017

Forest Fires and Haze

In 2015 a dry spell caused by the El Niño weather pattern made Indonesia’s forest fires especially severe. Smoke settled over Singapore for months and even reached Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. At least 2m hectares of forest were burned. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds of thousands sickened. For much of October 2015 greenhouse gases released by those fires exceeded the emissions of the entire American economy. The losses over five months of fires amounted to around 2% of the country’s GDP…[The event has labeled  the 2015 Southeast Asian haze]

Between 2001 and 2014, Indonesia lost 18.5m hectares of tree cover—an area more than twice the size of Ireland. In 2014 Indonesia overtook Brazil to become the world’s biggest deforester.

One of the reasons for those forest fires is economic. The country produces well over half the world’s palm oil, a commodity used in cooking and cosmetics, as a food additive and as a biofuel. It accounts for around 4.5% of Indonesia’s GDP, and demand is still rising. To meet it, Indonesian farmers set fires to clear forest and make way for new plantations. Often these forests grow on peatlands, which store carbon from decayed organic matter; in tropical regions these hold up to ten times as much carbon as surface soil. Draining peatlands releases all of that carbon. The peat also becomes a fuel, so it is not just felled trees that are burning but the ground itself.

But politics also plays a part. … The president declared a moratorium on peatland-development licences and called for peat forests to be restored, even as his agriculture minister pointed out that burned peatland can be used for corn and soyabean planting….

Civil-society groups have had some success. At least 188 Indonesian palm-oil companies have made some sort of sustainability pledge, including five large multinational firms that in 2014 signed the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), which commits them to avoiding deforestation and planting oil palms on peatland. Together those five firms account for 80% of Indonesia’s palm-oil exports.All the same, deforestation continues. Perversely, it may even have increased temporarily, as companies cleared as much land as they could before the agreement took effect. Besides, opaque supply chains allow companies to buy palm oil from suppliers not bound by IPOP.

Forests: A world on fire, Economist Special Report on Indonesia, Feb. 27, 2016

Biofuels Revolution? not really

B]iofuel schemes—ranging from fermenting starch, to recycling cooking oil, to turning algae into jet fuel—have drawn more than $126 billion in investment since 2003, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), a research outfit… [But]Those biofuels that can best compete commercially are not, in fact, green. Those that are green cannot compete commercially.

The biggest cause of ungreenness is that biofuels made from food crops—or from plants grown on land that might otherwise produce such crops—hurt food supplies. A committee of the European Parliament agreed this week to cap the use of “first-generation” biofuels of this sort. The current European target is for renewables to make up 10% of the energy used in transport by 2020. The new proposal says only seven-tenths of this can come from first-generation fuels. The difference must be made up by more advanced ones based on waste products and other feedstocks that do not impinge on food production. That could mean European demand for advanced biofuels of 14 billion litres by 2020, reckons Claire Curry of BNEF.
Only two such advanced fuels, she thinks, are capable of large-scale production. One is turning waste cooking oil and other fats into diesel—a process for which Europe already has 2 billion litres of capacity. The other involves making ethanol from cellulose by enzymatic hydrolysis. Everything elseis at least four years from commercial production. That includes the much-touted idea of renewable jet fuel.  This is promising on a small scale. South African Airways (SAA), in conjunction with Boeing and other partners, is developing fuel based on the seeds of the tobacco plant—once a big crop in the country, but now fallen on hard times.

Biofuels: Thin harvest, Economist, Apr. 18, 2015, at 72