Does the world really need another consultant? I would normally be the first one to answer with a rather understated “possibly not”. And yet here I am, at the end of a long and fulfilling career with BP, setting myself up as a biofuels expert / consultant / would-be influencer.
Why? Because fundamentally, I think that biofuels continue to be somewhat of a missed opportunity. Transport is at risk of being the last bastion of climate-damaging carbon emissions. Of course long-term solutions for low-carbon transport look terribly seductive, whether they are called electric vehicles, bio-methane or hydrogen. And indeed they are all great opportunities in their own right. But they all have big walls to hurdle over; logistics, infrastructure, affordability, public preference and convenience, to name but a few.
In the meantime, we all know that a tonne of CO2 avoided today is much more valuable than a tonne of CO2 avoided in 10 years’, never mind 30 years’ time. Decarbonising transport FAST is vitally important and excruciatingly difficult in equal measures.
That’s where biofuels come in. Sustainable biofuels, that is. And in this one word, easy to write on the page and much overused, lives a Pandora’s box stuffed full of complexity, misinformed or misleading opinions, short-term financial interests, bad or imperfect science, and ultimately geopolitics. A minefield with a few beartraps thrown in (or is it a bear cave with mines on?)
I call it the Biofuels Paradox. As a solution for decarbonising transport, biofuels – or to be more precise, liquid fuels of biogenic origin which can act as a direct substitute for fossil hydrocarbons – have so much going for them. They are instantly compatible, to a lesser or bigger extent, with our incumbent fuels, our supply logistics (terminals, pipelines etc), delivery infrastructure (aka fuel pumps) and our cars, trucks, ships and planes. They are scalable, especially as 2nd gen technologies open up many more types of feedstocks. Being liquid, they are cheap to transport – there is a reason why mobility has been powered by a liquid for the last century – and generally speaking, they are relatively affordable to produce as well. With all these advantages, it should be a slam-dunk, right?
Wrong. There is only one thing which is getting in the way of biofuels fulfilling their potential as a means to decarbonise transport fast, but it’s a massive thing. It is the constant, exhausting, never-ending debate about their sustainability. Anybody pertaining to answer the question “Are biofuels sustainable?” with a simple Yes or No is not helping. I genuinely feel for regulators around the world trying to navigate this storm, and to invent clear, effective, robust, practical and above all uncontroversial rules for what constitutes a sustainable biofuel. An impossible task of course, and so the debate rumbles on, and the finer details of these regulations keep changing; shifting the goalposts for investors who are desperate to inject capital into this growth sector, but are weary of backing tomorrow’s lame horse.
The debate will not stop, and shouldn’t – in my view, at least not until deforestation STOPS for good in the world. But because in every other respect, biofuels are such a compelling and simple solution to decarbonising transport, they don’t go away either. They are still here, part of the governments’ plans, and the potential is still here. The (so far) missed opportunity is still in front of us, possibly ready to be unlocked by the technologies enabling use of true waste streams, possibly in the Holy Grail that is algae oil, possibly through the emergence of new crops, intercrops and agricultural practices.
This is such an intriguing challenge, of such purpose and magnitude, that I wanted to remain involved in the space. No hard sell on this blog about my capabilities. Let’s just say I have been in this space for a long time, made enough mistakes to write a catalogue of them, and hopefully learned a few valuable lessons along the way. And fundamentally, I remain as excited by the possibilities of the sector as I was back in 2006 when the good ship BP Biofuels was created, and I had the privilege to join the crew at the beginning of their adventure.
Let’s see what the future holds for biofuels!