View from the Academy: silos should not hold back biofuel development

Hayaatun SillemEngineering’s systems approach can inform government efforts to get desirable outcomes in sectors such as energy – particularly biofuels, says Hayaatan Sillem

The systems that constitute the world around us do not recognise the silos into which we organise ourselves. This is a key lesson for engineers as they seek to integrate their individual efforts towards achieving positive outcomes.

Whether concerned with small components within discrete technical systems such as engines or buildings, or with large pieces of infrastructure that form part of complex socio-technical systems such as cities or the national energy system, individual design efforts must integrate harmoniously within a larger whole.

Public policy, such as engineering, deals with complex systems, and the academy is working to apply some of the lessons learned from engineering systems approaches to help government achieve desirable outcomes in sectors such as energy, transport and manufacturing. A current example of the benefits of a systems approach to policy analysis is provided by the academy’s new report on biofuels: Sustainability of liquid biofuels. These are fuels derived from biomass, such as biodegradable agricultural products or industrial waste. They are important because much of our transportation is likely to rely on liquid fuel for many years – we will be unable to meet climate-change targets without deploying low-carbon liquid fuels.

The report was commissioned to assess the sustainability of biofuels, which are so complex that a systems approach was required

The academy’s report was commissioned by the Department for Transport and the former Department of Energy & Climate Change to assess in detail the sustainability of biofuels. Due to the complexity of the factors that underpin the sustainability of biofuels, this could be achieved only by adopting a systems approach.

This is illustrated by the concern that the production of biofuel from crops that could otherwise be consumed as food might create harmful competition for land between food and fuel. The review concluded that the addition of a biofuels market could actually benefit the agricultural sector – provided mechanisms for prioritising food markets were in place – such as by providing an extra incentive to plant crops, invest in process efficiencies and crop yields, and drive improvements in infrastructure. Nevertheless, the potential for competition with food needs to be carefully managed, especially in places that experience food scarcity.

The second major concern around biofuel production from food crops relates to so-called indirect land-use change. Direct conversion of uncultivated land to produce biofuel feedstocks is prohibited, but indirect changes in land use can arise from the need to grow more crops elsewhere to service pre-existing demand from products such as food or animal feed. Among other impacts, this has a carbon footprint, because soils and vegetation contain large stocks of carbon that, when disturbed, can result in release of CO2.

The academy’s report found that indirect change in land use caused by biofuels from food crops was a legitimate concern; it has almost certainly occurred and can significantly increase a biofuel’s carbon footprint. The tricky part is tracing the causation between the production of biofuels from a crop in one part of the world and a rise in production from newly converted land in another. However, there is extensive research to improve our understanding of indirect market effects from biofuel demand and help identify and avoid the biomass feedstocks that pose greatest risk.

Biofuels policy has also encouraged a move towards biofuels from wastes and residues, with 57 per cent of biofuels supplied in the UK now produced from wastes and non-agricultural residues.

Ultimately, the academy concludes that the UK government can and should increase the levels of biofuels required in our fuel, while taking steps to manage the risks. This should include setting a cap for the supply of all crop-based biofuels and continuing to incentivise the development of biofuels derived from wastes – such as waste cooking oil – and agricultural, forest and sawmill residues.

A systems perspective entails considering not just the direct impacts of biofuels but the wider policy context. While substantial effort has gone into developing sustainability criteria for biofuels, many other land-using sectors are not subject to the same levels of sustainability governance. There is a real danger that inroads made through policies that ensure biofuels are low-carbon will be negated by changes in land use driven by other markets that attract less scrutiny.

One of the challenges is the many stakeholders involved in policy development and implementation. For example, while energy policy is now chiefly the remit of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, biofuels policy is largely administered by the DfT and most of the issues of land-use management are within the purview of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency and others.

This situation applies across many complex issues facing society. There is rarely a single solution, but a systems approach – built around a clear vision of the intended outcome – can help tackle the complexity. It engages stakeholders with simple questions such as “What does ‘good’ look like?”.

Good systems engineering is not common and, as challenges become ever more complex, engineers must do all they can to embrace a systems view – and encourage policymakers to do the same.

Dr Hayaatun Sillem is deputy chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering 

Sustainability of liquid biofuels is available at