Cooking oil

The risks of Britain’s green biofuel narrative

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The UK's increasing reliance on imports of used cooking oil for biofuels is creating environmental problems in the countries from which it is sourced, a transport expert argues.

The UK government enthusiastically embraces so-called biofuels, especially for its transport sector. 

The country used more than 2,000 million litres of liquid biofuels for transport in 2019, a 24 per cent increase on the previous year.

A 2020 government report states that a substantial increase in consumption of biodiesel was observed, up 40 per cent on 2018. By 2019, biofuels accounted for 5 per cent of the total transport sector, according to HM Revenue and Customs data.

Despite the hype, however, criticism of biofuels is mounting. What do academics say about biofuels and the impact on the environment?

An academic review of their sustainability conducted by the Royal Society last year found that, while promising to be a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels in the transport sector, there are concerns. Scaling up their use could have "unintended environmental consequences," it says. 

If no land-use change (from the production of biofuel feedstocks and the risks of degradation of land, forests, water resources and ecosystems) is involved, first-generation biofuels tend to have lower greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels.

However, the reductions in emissions for most feedstocks appear insufficient to meet the emission savings required by the EU Renewable Energy Directive.

Specifically, second-generation biofuels – which include non-edible vegetable oils, waste cooking oils (UCO) and animal fats – tend to have a greater potential to reduce emissions if there is no land-use change, according to the authors.

What the environmental transport expert says

Experts see a mounting problem with used cooking oils coming from abroad. I talked to Greg Archer, director of the non-government organisation European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E).

An insider of the biofuel industry told reporters that the approximately 70 countries that supply Europe with UCO do not have the capacity to collect, process, certify and export the nearly 3.5 billion litres consumed in 2019.

Archer claims his team has unearthed some major problems used cooking oil causes in the UK, and, perhaps more importantly, abroad.

For companies in the EU, the Renewable Energy Directive allows used cooking oils to be double-counted towards green fuel targets. It makes them an attractive solution for the member countries to boost their efforts towards sustainable transport goals, he says. “Each litre that is made counts double. That’s because it's being made from a waste product, which is better than making biofuel from virgin palm oil or rapeseed and other sources."

The problem with double-counting is that it makes UCOs a high-value product on the global market. “The biofuels industry started surveying the world to find all the used cooking oil,” says Archer. The large increase in imports led to problems. 

Importantly, in a lot of the places from which Britain and the EU source used cooking oils, the resource is not a waste product, he explains.

“In China, for example, used cooking oil is fed back to people, sometimes illegally. But it is also fed extensively to pigs and cattle as a feedstock.”

With attractive prices for exports to the UK, nations like China or Malaysia can earn more money. But now, these nations face a dilemma: A lack of it on their own turf, says Archer: “There is still a need to feed those pigs and cattle.”

To find a way around it, businesses in source countries would purchase virgin palm oil, the cheapest oil on the market. They now try to export it under a false label. “As a result, we're not solving the problem. We're just driving more deforestation by encouraging more palm oil production and more palm oil use,” he says.

Challenges to audit imports

The UK government has stated that more than half (51 per cent) of renewable fuel is produced from used cooking oil used in several different types of renewable fuel. Industry insiders (see below) claim that a large share labelled as UCO is actually fraudulent.

Telling the difference between what is used cooking oil and what isn't is challenging for the regulator. In an investigation by the European Commission, investigators could not find out whether the used cooking oil was really used, Archer says. The case also flagged a problem of insufficient import checks, which are meant to evaluate the provenance of cooking oil arriving in Europe. 

A severe fraud case emerged last year when an investigation by the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) together with Dutch investigators exposed a fraud scheme in The Netherlands. It made many wonder whether biofuels can be trusted as being produced sustainably, or whether it’s only registered and sold as a sustainable fuel.

People who mislead the regulator and import authorities received prison sentences, Archer notes. It is doubtful whether that did the trick to stop subsequent fraud schemes, given the lucrative prices in the UK and Europe.

To combat falsely labelled UCO imports to the UK, the government implemented the Renewable Transport Fuel Certificates scheme. Archer is critical. He knows the RTFOs well and helped the UK government to put the scheme in place more than a decade ago. He knows their limitations. He thinks RTFOs are not enough to combat the fraud problem on its own.

“The problem with the RTFO approach is that it is just a paper trail,” he says. The paper trail can be helpful but not if there is a lack of import checks. “Certification schemes, which operate to give credibility to the suppliers, do almost [nothing in terms of] on-site audits to check that the claims being made are genuine. The system is open to abuse and fraud,” he says.

A new step in the wrong direction

Britain accounts for a tiny share of used cooking oil that it produces for its own industry. It's also on its way to growing even more dependent. 

The UK government has looked at increasing the target for the amount of renewable transport fuels that oil suppliers are required to supply. The Department for Transport stated that RTFOs' main obligation to supply renewable fuel could increase by 2.5 per cent. Archer says the plan of raising the target isn’t helpful because it makes the UK more dependent on used cooking oil imports, not less.  "1.5 in 2022 followed by an additional 1 per cent spread over the period between 2023 and 2032."

The consultation is currently still under review but will close shortly, he notes.

“It [the government] raises the target because they've decided to introduce, E10 petrol, meaning they decided to double the amount of ethanol that goes into petrol. More of the biofuel targets will be met by adding ethanol to petrol. Less of the biofuel targets will be made by adding biodiesel to diesel. It’s because the bioethanol is cheaper”. 

The government is now under pressure from the biodiesel industry. Itsays it has increased the amounts of ethanol. "So, now it's going to increase the targets overall, to make sure that the biodiesel industry can continue to increase the amount of biofuel that it is supplying”. He predicts the UK will see more imported ethanol from Latin America, more imported biodiesel of questionable origin, such as from Asia. "The benefits to the climate will be negligible. It's entirely counterproductive".

Apart from the issues around UCOs, there are other problems with biofuels, he says. One is a trend towards more byproducts of palm oil that started to come to the UK. “That never happened in the past. If you start to look at where the ethanol is coming from more of that is beginning to come from Latin and South America”. The problem is that it is hard to tell whether a byproduct is actually a byproduct: “Is it a waste material or is it actually virgin oil?”  

Two weeks ago, T&E published a report on the perils of growing import dependence on used cooking oil.

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