IEA: Biofuels to represent 27 percent of fuel supply by 2050

By Erin Voegele | April 25, 2011

A report released April 20 by the International Energy Agency determined that, when produced sustainably, the widespread deployment of biofuels can play an important role in reducing CO2 emissions in the transportation sector. The report, titled “Technology Roadmap: Biofuels for Transport,” also noted that biofuels can help enhance energy security.

According to the report, production of biomass-derived fuels is a key technology that will aid in carbon dioxide emissions reductions. The report also demonstrates that global biofuel consumption can increase in a sustainable way, from 55 million metric tons of oil equivalent today, to 750 million metric tons of oil equivalent in 2050. The report defines sustainable fuel production as that which results in significant life-cycle environmental benefits without compromising food security. The projected increase would ultimately mean that total percentage of petroleum-based transportation fuels replaced by biomass-based counterparts would increase from approximately 2 percent today to 27 percent in 2050.

While the report found that biofuels can provide transportation fuel with substantially lower CO2 emissions than conventional fuels on a life-cycle basis, it also points out several caveats. The authors note that it is important to reduce the amount of fossil energy that is used to cultivate, transport and convert biomass into fuels. In addition, the report state that conventional biofuels must be improved in terms of conversion efficiency and land-use efficiency, while advanced production technologies need to be commercially deployed within a 10-year timeframe. According to the IEA, advanced biofuels will represent the majority of biofuels produced in 2050.

“Further support for advanced biofuel research, development and demonstration is still needed to improve conversion efficiencies and reduce costs. In addition, investments in commercial-scale production units will be a key to enable advanced biofuels to reach full market maturity,” said Bo Diczfalusy, IEA’s director of sustainable energy policy and technology. “Government action is needed to provide a stable, long-term policy framework for biofuels that allows for sustained investments in biofuel expansion. Specific support measures that address the high investment risk currently associated with precommercial advanced biofuel technologies will be vital to trigger industry investments in first commercial plants.”

The report states that with substantial improvements in place, most biofuel technologies could be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. The total expenditures needed to meet the IEA’s targets are estimated to be between $11 trillion and $13 trillion over the next 40 years. While this figure seems large, the agency said that under a worst-case scenario biofuels would only increase the cost of fuels by 1 percent during the next 40 years. It is also possible that biofuels could actually reduce the cost of transportation fuel during that period of time.

In order to meet these biofuel targets established in the IEA’s roadmap, the agency estimates that 3 billion metric tons of biomass will be needed annually by 2050. “The report assesses that 1 billion metric tons of biomass restudies and wastes would be needed, and this would need to be supplemented by production from around 100 million hectares of land—around 2 percent of total agricultural land,” said the IEA. “This would be a three-fold increase compared with today, but the yield of biofuels could increase by a factor of 10 through the use of wastes and residues and through the use of more productive crops and processes.”

The IEA prepared the report in consultation with representatives of government, industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations. A full copy of the report can be downloaded from the agency’s website


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