Featured in Biofuels International magazine, October 2017
In recent months there has been questioning of the Government’s seemingly wavering commitment to environmental issues, highlighted in the delay of publishing its Air Quality Report, and then on its sudden announcement to ban the sale of fossil fuel cars by 2040. Yet many have overlooked another severely delayed report which also has a major impact on the UK’s environmental responsibilities – the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO).
This policy document will detail how the UK aims to reach its legally binding target of 10% of transport fuels coming from renewable sources by 2020 (as well as the trajectory for our Climate Change Act). Just a few years from the deadline, according to the Committee on Climate Change, we currently sit at about 2.3% rather than the 8% needed to tackle the major challenges of greenhouse gas emissions and transport pollution.
An immediate, quick, easy and cost-effective method of getting closer to this target is through the introduction of E10 – a blend of 10% bioethanol with regular unleaded petrol. Bioethanol is a low-carbon renewable fuel made from crops, which already constitutes up to 5% of our unleaded petrol blend. It offers both carbon savings and air quality benefits and is widely used throughout Europe, North America and Australasia, yet in Britain we’re still waiting for this most obvious of steps.
Bioethanol typically offers around 60% greenhouse gas savings compared to standard petrol and its source – in our case, animal feed-grade wheat from local farms – can be constantly regrown whilst also absorbing carbon dioxide emitted by transport. Doubling the bioethanol blending level by displacing a further 5% of oil in our tanks would be the carbon emissions savings equivalent to taking 700,000 cars off the road – comparable to a traffic jam from Manchester to Moscow!
Furthermore, bioethanol can help to improve air quality by lowering some harmful pollutants which can cause or exacerbate conditions like heart disease, lung cancer and asthma. It is not carcinogenic, unlike several chemicals contained within petrol, so bioethanol blended fuel helps to reduce the carcinogens produced by transport – for example benzene and butadiene emissions decrease with higher levels of bioethanol blending. Because it is an oxygenate, it burns fuel better and increases the efficiency of the engine, thereby lowering the hydrocarbons that are released.
Indeed, a report recently published by the European Commission found that increased ethanol blends in petrol result in a 5-20% reduction in emissions of nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. In our efforts to tackle air pollution from traffic, particularly in urban areas, E10 would make a feasible immediate contribution.
Bioethanol is mixed only with petrol, which produces around 300% less ‘Nox’ pollutants (nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide) than its viscous diesel counterpart. This is a crucial point – in the recent battle to shift everyone out of diesel vehicles towards electric options, many have overlooked the fact that petrol sales are rising – therefore decarbonising petrol is an increasingly important requirement.
To put into context, Hybrid vehicles – essentially a petrol-engine with an additional electric motor for shorter low-speed journeys – are increasingly being favoured over full electric vehicles and are often seen as a stepping stone towards them. Sales figures show a migration from diesel towards petrol vehicles and a recent survey by consumer motoring group Fair Fuel UK showed that of those drivers planning to change from a diesel car, 9.4% planned to purchase a petrol or petrol hybrid compared to 0.7% who would choose an electric car. Notably, of those who had converted to driving an electric car, over 5% intended to revert to a petrol hybrid. These results illustrate that demand for petrol is likely to increase in the coming decades, long before 2040, and that it would be remiss of Government not to lower emissions further by displacing oil in petrol with bioethanol.
Science and sales support the case for E10, and another recent Fair Fuel UK survey suggests that public opinion also supports an increased blend of bioethanol, with over 82% of the 25,000 respondents advocating E10 as a method of lowering transport emissions. The fact that this move requires no consumer behavioural change adds to its long list of benefits, particularly when compared to the huge infrastructure demands of a shift to electric vehicles.
The Department for Transport has unfortunately been going around in circles over this decision for years, whilst other countries saw the clear benefits of bioethanol and introduced higher blends as early as 2011. Meanwhile, the consultation around the RTFO was repeatedly delayed by indecision and the political merry-go-round, with the final proposals – expected to inexplicably contain the lowest ‘crop cap’ in Europe – scheduled for release before 15th April, remaining unpublished.
In the meantime, the renewables industry and the agricultural sector that relies on it, remain in limbo. Hundreds of millions of pounds of investment, thousands of jobs, hundreds of farms, and of course the entire raison d’etre of improving the environment, all hang in the balance. With Brexit swiftly approaching, now is the time for the Government to back this key domestic industry.