The expansion of biofuel market

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by Carmine Lorenzo

Thanks to the policies providing for a growing use of biofuels in the automotive sector and to the tax incentives that have been adopted in many countries around the world in support of their production, the world market for biofuels is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. 

The production of ethanol is predominant in Brazil, USA and Africa, while the European Union emerges between the main markets of biodiesel, such as Indonesia. 

Data provided by FAO indicate Colombia as a nation with current and future prospects of investment in biofuels, mainly due to its highest rate of performance among the largest producers of sugar cane, 122,47 ton / ha, much higher than Brazil (79.2 ton / ha), China (71.2 ton ha) and India (68.7 ton / ha). 
It is also ranked as the most efficient producer of sugar, with a rate of 14.6 ton / ha, followed by Australia (11.5 ton / ha) and Brazil (9.5 ton / ha), which allows one of the greatest productivity of ethanol, with 9,000 liters / ha / year, beating Brazil and Ecuador by 50% and 55% respectively and representing another incentive to invest in biofuels. 
On the other hand, Colombia has a remarkable availability of land for the development of agro-fuels that do not affect natural forests, with an area of 7.4 million hectares. For example, the availability of land to be used for agriculture is five times greater in Colombia than in Malaysia, which is the second largest producer of palm oil; in particular, the country has concentrated the production of ethanol and biodiesel from the most energy-efficient agricultural raw materials on the market, sugar cane and palm oil, thus becoming today the largest producer of palm oil in Latin America and the fifth largest producer in the world, with more than 411,000 hectares. This is also an important niche for investing in biofuels in Colombia, as the domestic demand for ethanol and biodiesel is not yet satisfied by the local supply. 

The final market for consumption of biodiesel is mainly Europe, but a significant role can also be played by Japan and, in America, by California. 

Biodiesel is a fuel made from renewable sources such as vegetable oils and animal fats and is similar to diesel fuel derived from petroleum. Contrary to what is commonly believed, biodiesel is not a simple and pure vegetable oil, such as canola oil, but rather the result of a chemical process ( methyl alcohol transesterification) applied on the said biological components or on other ones. 

To reach the 10% renewable target in transport of the so-called 20-20-20 directive, biofuels are blended with fossil fuels (petrol and diesel). 

Currently, in Europe and in Italy, biodiesel is mainly used and is blended, by obligation, to the extent of 7% with diesel. Diesel fuel that is used for cars contain 7% of biodiesel, even though outlets do not indicate its presence. 

To fulfill the European target, italian oil companies have the legal obligation to use 4,5% of biofuels blended with fossil fuels. This percentage has increased to 5% from the year 2014. 

To date, italian market has almost exclusively used biodiesel products to cover its mandatory elease of biofuels for consumption, but other biofuels can be used such as bioethanol and ETBE. 

Italy has become the fourth country in Europe in terms of biofuel production. According to data released by the Assocostieri - Union of biofuel producers, Italy produces about 2.5 million tons of fuels each year. Although this is a large amount, it does not seem to be sufficient to meet domestic demand, so that quantities of imported biofuel are very high. 

In 2011, the amount of refined biofuels imported from abroad was equal to 70% of the total volume of biofuel released for consumption. Agricultural raw  for biofuel production is also imported. In 2010, Italy imported 72% of the raw material for the production of biodiesel from non-EU countries, for a total import of 560 thousand tons of plant biomass - as evidenced by the First Italian Report about progress under Directive 2009/28 / EC . Only 86,000 tons of plant biomass come from domestic production, while an additional amount of 126,000 was imported into Italy from European countries. 

It is easy to see that the growth of this market has really helped the owners of the tanker sector. Demand for chemical tankers, in particular in the Asian market, is rapidly growing. Biodiesel is a godsend for shipowners. To make the scenario even more profitable to certain shipping companies, new international rules have occurred since the beginning of 2007: according to them, the vegetable oil must be transported in IMO type II double hull chemical tankers. The obvious consequence was a considerable increase in freight rates, which rewarded those who were able to quickly propose these ships on the market.

An important role was also played by anti-dumping duties on imports of biodiesel from Argentina and Indonesia, that were imposed by the EU in 2013. 

Finally, the production of biofuel put some global issues on the agenda which must be thoroughly evaluated to avoid that the cost risks (social and environmental costs) become greater than the benefits achieved. It is necessary to take account of the problems concerning the properties that are used for the production of the raw material: the conversion from agricultural land dedicated to the production of raw material for food purposes to land for biofuel production may have very negative effects on their sustainability and their impact on the cost of food commodities. 

More and more often we hear of Land grabbing: in fact, since food and financial crisis of 2007,  the most economically wealthy countries that do not have sufficient space to ensure food security for their inhabitants have began to buy and rent huge amounts of land in African countries or South America. Even large energy and agriculture corporations, interested in creating huge plantations for the production of biofuels, and some financial companies are doing the same to secure supplies. 

A notable example: on March 7, 2014, the newspaper "La Repubblica" published an article reporting a petition by ActionAid against an Italian company accused of land grabbing. The international petition launched by ActionAid and Re:Common asks the Group to abandon the project of growing sunflowers for the production of edible oil in the senegalese reserve of Ndjael. Fanaye, the location where the project had to be developed​​, was hit by civil unrest. These events led investors to find another area. 

However, price increase in food products stems from reasons not related to the use of biofuels; changes in the dietary habits of Asian countries, climate change, financial speculation have a significant impact on the prices of food commodities which are also used in the field of bioenergy. It has been shown that the increased use of biofuels has not automatically resulted in an increase in prices of food commodities. 

However, the sustainability criteria set out by the European Commission, implemented in Italy since 2012, prohibit the use of biofuels from deforested areas and areas rich in biodiversity.

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