Energy Transition

The Global Biofuel Alliance has just launched, but what exactly are biofuels?

The Global Biofuel Alliance launched at the G20 Summit in India this September.

The Global Biofuel Alliance launched at the G20 Summit in India this September. Image: REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool

Ian Shine
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The Global Biofuel Alliance launched at the G20 this year with the aim of boosting supply and demand for biofuels.
  • Biofuels are made using organic materials and offer a lower-emissions fuel option for many forms of transport.
  • The World Economic Forum is a member of the Global Biofuel Alliance, and its report on Fostering Effective Energy Transition highlights how countries such as Brazil are using policies to expand biofuel use.

The Global Biofuel Alliance launched at the G20 Summit in India in September.

It brings together 19 countries and 12 international organizations – including the World Economic Forum, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank – to try to expand the use of sustainable biofuels.

But what exactly are biofuels, how can they accelerate the transition to net zero in different industries, and how will the Global Biofuel Alliance work to increase supply and demand?

What are biofuels?

Most biofuels are used as transportation fuels, but they may also be used for heating and electricity generation,” the US Energy Information Administration says.

Biofuels are made using various organic materials.
Biofuels are made using various organic materials. Image: IEA

Biofuels have lower emissions intensity than fossil fuels and therefore can play a crucial role in decarbonizing transport – particularly in hard-to-abate sectors such as aviation.

Compared with switching to electric vehicles, an advantage they offer is that biofuels can often be used in existing vehicle engines, with no or very few changes needed.

Blending biofuels with gasoline and diesel

Biofuels can also be blended with traditional vehicle fuels such as gasoline and diesel to reduce emissions from these fuels.

The US government wants to raise the amount of biofuels that oil refiners have to blend into fuels by about 10% over the next three years. And India has brought forward its deadline to double its ethanol blending in gasoline to 20% – it now aims to do this by 2025 rather than 2030.

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Countries also introduce rules on blending to raise demand for biofuels and help develop the biofuel industry.

Nigeria is pushing for petrol sales with blends of 90% gasoline with 10% ethanol – a renewable fuel made from plant materials – and for 20:80 blends of biodiesel with standard diesel.

Biofuels can impact food crops and land use

It can also lead to the conversion of land, such as forests and wetlands, into agricultural land – a process known as indirect land use change (ILUC). This could result in increased levels of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere by reducing the presence of natural “carbon sinks” – plants and soil that can store carbon.

Many European countries have increased their use of biofuels since 2010. While this has reduced the emissions intensity of road transport, the scale of this reduction is less significant when ILUC is taken into account, as the chart below shows.

Figure illustrating the grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule of energy produced.
Using land to grow crops for biofuels can reduce the world’s expanse of natural carbon sinks. Image: European Environment Agency

What will the Global Biofuel Alliance do?

  • Helping enable advances in biofuel technology
  • Increasing the use of sustainable biofuels, to counter ILUC concerns
  • Shaping “robust standard setting and certification”.

It will also act as a knowledge hub to help foster global collaboration and work to ensure secure and affordable supplies of biofuels.

Exploring alternative ingredients for biofuels such as algae will help serve many of these goals.

The Alliance’s 19 member countries include the US and Brazil – the world’s biggest and second-biggest biofuels producers, respectively – as well as Singapore, Argentina, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Graphs illustrating the leading countries based on biofuel production worldwide in 2022
The Global Biofuel Alliance includes the world’s biggest biofuel producers. Image: Statista

Brazil’s national biofuels programme, RenovaBio, came into being in 2020 and is helping the country push towards having an 18% share of biofuels in its energy mix by 2030, says the World Economic Forum’s Fostering Effective Energy Transition 2023 report.

South Africa has cut fuel taxes on biodiesel to make it more attractive and is considering removing taxes on bioethanol. Meanwhile, the shipping industry in the UAE has been driving demand for biofuels as it looks to shift away from fossil fuels.

“The push for a biofuels alliance mirrors the International Solar Alliance launched by New Delhi and Paris in 2015 to bring clean and affordable solar energy within the reach of all,” according to Reuters.

Solar power has soared in the decade since, with global solar power generation rising by 26% in 2022 alone.

Biofuel production needs to rise by an average of 11% a year this decade to put the world on track for net zero, according to the International Energy Agency. The Global Biofuel Alliance will be hoping it can help make that happen.

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Related topics:
Energy TransitionNature and BiodiversityClimate ChangeSupply Chain and Transport
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