Low carbon liquid fuels

All future decarbonisation scenarios will need ambitious new policies for the whole economy and significant investment in a wide range of new technologies. A fundamental change is needed in the energy market along with societal behaviour, to achieve the UK's Net Zero ambitions.

The role of low carbon liquid fuels

If the carbon intensity of liquid fuels could be reduced, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be substantially cut during the transition to Net Zero and beyond it as well.

We need to consider consumption and emissions from every step of the process for all types of energy carrier technology:

i) production of crude oil or other energy feedstock

ii) transportation, refining, formulation and distribution of the finished fuel ('well-to-tank')

iii) the consumption of the fuel in the vehicle ('tank-to-wheels') and

iv) final use and recycling of the vehicle ('lifecycle analysis').

A number of pathways exist to reduce the carbon intensity of liquid fuels. These include:

1. Vehicle efficiency enhancement

2. Improving the efficiency of the extraction (upstream) and refining (downstream) of crude oil

3. Utilising alternative and sustainable low-carbon liquid fuels (i.e. biofuels, synthetic fuels, power-to-liquids/e-fuels)

4. Improving the performance of petroleum-based fuels

5. Introducing other vehicle fuel technologies, such as on-board carbon capture or final conversion of tailpipe emissions

While other energy carriers (i.e. renewable electricity, hydrogen etc.) are likely to offer achievable alternatives for road transport, fewer technology options are currently available for carbon emissions reductions in the Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs) and aviation sectors to allow full substitution of liquid hydrocarbons by 2050.

Low-carbon liquid fuels will therefore continue to be important in achieving GHG emissions reductions in the long-term as well as playing an important role in short-term decarbonisation efforts.

It is technically possible for companies to produce a range of low-carbon liquid hydrocarbon fuels that can be distributed to the consumer. This will require an innovative approach to how our fuels are sourced, manufactured and ultimately used by those consumers.

Low-carbon liquid hydrocarbon fuels are an exciting prospect with a wide number of potential avenues for development. These include:


Biofuels have become a common component of the modern fuels sector, with mandated requirements in the UK under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) to include a proportion of products manufactured from biological sources, wastes and residues in fuel sold to the consumer.

Renewable Fuels of Non-Biological Origin (RFNBOs)

RFNBOs are fuels produced via electrolysis using renewable power and synthesis. A primary example is a process where hydrogen, produced from a low-carbon source, reacts with carbon dioxide to produce a hydrocarbon chain that is also referred to as power-to-liquid (PtL) or an e-fuel.

Low-Carbon Fossil Fuels

LCFFs are produced from non-organic waste or non-waste fossil feedstocks from non-renewable energy that may have a carbon content lower than conventional petrol or diesel. Typical examples include LPG and LNG, as well as fuels produced from non-organic Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and crude oil refining with carbon capture technology.

Development fuels

Development fuels are a UK concept and a legislative obligation to encourage lower carbon fuels in the 'hard to decarbonise' transport sector, i.e. HGVs and aviation). Development of such fuels in the UK could not only fulfil domestic needs, but also present potential export opportunities for the technology and - should enough feedstock be available - the fuels themselves.

One of the considerable tests that will face fuel manufacturers and policymakers when looking to maximise the take-up of low-carbon fuels could be the availability of feedstocks to meet consumer demand. The resources needed to produce alternative liquid fuels are much higher in comparison to conventional fossil fuels, particularly as many of these fuels are reliant on either biofuel production or waste products.

Low Carbon Fuels

See UKPIA's ideas on how low carbon fuels can help the UK deliver Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and what Government can do to help the downstream sector play its part.

Low Carbon Fuels
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