Total warns UK lagging on biofuel adoption

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Oil industry exec believes France has got the First World War to thank for its biofuel experience

France and Germany are progressing well in increasing adoption of biofuels, but other countries in Europe including the UK are lagging behind, according to a senior executive at French oil giant Total.

Speaking at a BioFuels 2009 conference in Budapest yesterday, Jacques Blondy, director of agriculture development at Total, said that while France and Germany are progressing well towards European targets to increase the share of biofuels used in transport to 10 percent of total fuel use, other countries are proving less successful.

“In Europe we have the 10 per cent energy target [and we are seeing that] France is far ahead with Germany,” said Blondy, before aiming a not too subtle dig at the UK’s performance. “In Europe we have two countries that are usually best – it’s France and Germany who are usually first with these things. Some others, such as the UK, are very, erm… moderate.”

The European Commission’s target to ensure that 10 per cent of all road transport fuels should come from renewables was first announced in January 2008, as part of the EU’s wider plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions 20 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020. The 10 per cent target, which is meant to be reached by 2020, builds on a earlier plan to mandate that 5.75 per cent of road transport fuels be made up of biofuel by 2010.

The UK government has been more circumspect about the environmental benefits associated with biofuels than some of its European counterparts, and launched a major review into whether biofuels are delivering genuine cuts in carbon emissions back in February 2008.

However, despite on-going concerns that some biofuels can lead to increased emissions by contributing to deforestation, the Department for Energy and Climate Change insists that the UK is still fully committed to meeting the European targets for biofuel use.

“We are committed under the European Renewable Energy Directive (RED) to sourcing 10 per cent of our transport energy from renewable sources by 2020 (as part of a wider EU commitment to sourcing 15 per cent of UK energy from renewable sources),” the department states.

Blondy also said that France’s increased adoption of biofuels could be partly explained by its experiences during the First World War when ethanol was used as an explosive. After the war, the French government opted to use ethanol in fuel production for a period, an experience that Blondy said the country’s biofuel sector was now drawing upon.

“As the Germans were occupying the North East of France where alcohol was produced, production was moved to the south of France,” he explained. “At the end of the war there was an overcapacity in alcohol production so the decision was made to use that in a national fuel that contained up to 25 per cent alcohol.”

The post-war ethanol-based fuel was very expensive and was eventually discontinued, but Blondy said that the experiment meant that France had a history of using ethanol in its fuel – a factor that has helped establish acceptance for the fuel among motorists.

However, Blondy warned that wider adoption of biofuels was being hampered by a shortage of refinery and distribution infrastructure on both sides of the Atlantic.

“When you look at a map of the United States some states are reaching the 10 per cent blending [target] and others are not simply for logistic reasons,” he observed. “They cannot be reached by rail and it is difficult to ship ethanol to those places and [as a result] they will never make the 10 per cent target… We are seeing the same difficulty in reaching the target in Europe – especially in biodiesel.”

A report earlier this month from United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management claimed that some biofuels are leading to net increases in carbon emissions, calculating that the use of biodiesel from palm oil plantations grown on deforested peatlands, for example, results in greenhouse gas emissions that are up to 2,000 per cent greater than those generated from fossil fuels.

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