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Biofuels have some growing to do. Global allies can help

The UAE's biofuels industry needs standardisation and streamlining. It can learn a lot from a newly launching international group

Lootah workers inspect the machines that turn used cooking oil into biofuel Lootah Biofuels
Lootah workers inspect the machines that turn used cooking oil into biofuel

The UAE’s decision to join the Global Biofuels Alliance, a group being set up by India to promote sustainable biofuels, comes at an opportune time for the Emirati government as it prepares to host Cop28.

It will also be of critical importance to producers in the – broadly scattered and much sidelined – local biofuels sector. 

As the first Middle Eastern country to join this new organisation, the UAE stands to gain many benefits from collaboration with founding members such as the US and UK.

These include access to a vast pool of knowledge from matured biofuel markets such as India, expertise on technological advances and export market opportunities. 

Membership will fundamentally and undoubtedly accelerate the growth of the Emirati biofuel sector and encourage the development of solutions tailored to market-specific needs. 

It will also play a pivotal role in the UAE’s move from a linear to a circular economy, contributing to the net zero 2050 target. The UAE’s inclusion in the alliance could be a game-changer for the region’s energy sector.

Awareness and acceptance of bioenergy have grown rapidly in recent years, globally and locally – a positive indicator of the potential to create a more sustainable future for the Middle East.

There are several waste-to-energy concepts already operating in the region, the most notable being the Dubai Waste Management Centre

I believe take-up of biofuel is the first step towards decarbonisation of heavy/commercial transport, especially since fossil fuel prices are highly volatile and there is potential for greater emissions reduction from biofuels.

So far, local decarbonisation initiatives have focused on domestic transport, such as electric cars. 

The challenges facing UAE biofuel operators

Demand is growing, but some challenges need to be overcome to realise bioenergy’s full potential in the UAE.

One of the main obstacles is the lack of an established supply chain for biomass feedstock, making it difficult for producers to secure a reliable and cost-effective source of raw materials.

As a business that recycles used cooking oil (UCO) to make fuel for commercial fleets, we have felt the need for its standardisation. We find it a critical challenge to ensure that the oil collected is minimally adulterated. 

The sector runs on supplier-collector partnerships, wherein the recycler provides incentives to UCO suppliers. While this motivates restaurants and hotels to recycle their used oil, it can tempt some to increase the volumes through adulteration with water or food waste. The adulterated UCO reduces recycling in the production unit and leads to losses. 

A centralised, consolidated data management system is also needed to streamline the industry and achieve a better circular economy.

The Global Biofuels Alliance will be officially launched next month at the G20 summit in India.

This will provide an excellent platform for the UAE to showcase its achievements and potential in the sector. Hopefully, it will also attract new investments and collaborations with international players. 

For local producers, it could give access to valuable resources on production processes. The alliance in general provides a platform to develop greater standardisation of the biofuels supply chain in the UAE.

With India, the UK and the US as founding members, it will have significant market influence and offers the UAE an unprecedented export opportunity. 

Membership of the network should increase the global credibility of UAE producers. This increased market access will bolster UAE biofuel and have a positive impact on the national economy.

For a country historically synonymous with fossil fuels, joining the alliance could serve as an inflection point to start playing a pivotal role in advancing alternative fuels. 

It is another example of the UAE’s proactive stance on environmental sustainability – and one we hope will bear fruit.   

Yousif bin Saeed Lootah is founder and CEO of Lootah Biofuels