Reconsidering our relationship with biofuels
Europe should rethink the use of biofuels based on evidence rather than emotions in order to harness its climate benefits
As the saying goes, “Love is blind.” But what happens when the honeymoon is over?
We can draw a parallel here to what happened to biofuels in Europe. After being hailed as the one technology capable of decarbonizing the transport sector, biofuels were later accused of being unsustainable.
But there is still time to save the relationship. With trusted mediators bringing solid evidence back into the discussion, we can build a stronger foundation for biofuels in Europe that will enable sustainable ones to flourish, including new generations of advanced biofuels.
It’s an outcome worth fighting for, especially since biofuels such as renewable ethanol—which reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 64% on average compared to gasoline—can play a big role in meeting European Union (EU) transport decarbonization goals. But if we fail, we will seriously impede the EU’s ability to reach its climate ambitions.
The history between biofuels and Europe
The romance with biofuels really started 10 to 15 years ago when policies in the U.S., Brazil, the EU and others brought a steep increase in their use. With rising oil prices, increasing issues with energy security along with growing concerns about global warming caused by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, biofuels—due to their renewable nature and local production—were seen as an ideal option. They also offered new opportunities for Europe’s struggling farmers.
Unfortunately, biofuels fell out of favor in Europe as doubts related to food security and indirect land use change emerged. The debate intensified, with divisive interests and often contradictory information preventing the EU from harnessing the full benefits of sustainable biofuels such as renewable ethanol.
Today, biofuels provide 4% of global road transport fuel demand. But, with the right policies in place, they could contribute significantly more to EU climate and energy goals.
There is a global consensus now—including international organizations such as the FAO, IEA, IRENA and the UN IPCC—that sustainable biofuels are needed and should be pursued in order to meet our global climate ambitions. Without action, global CO2 emissions from transport are projected to double by 2050. The challenge is that biofuels—like any other renewable energy source—are neither good nor bad per se. Regardless of whether a biofuel is made from crops or waste, its sustainability impact is context-specific and depends on the location and the way biomass is produced.
Fortunately, some of these international organizations have also provided clear recommendations, based on knowledge and competence acquired in the past decade, on how to govern the expansion of biofuels sustainably while minimizing the risk of negative impacts. Notably, this requires the establishment of specific sustainability requirements for all types of biofuels. If all conditions are met, IRENA even demonstrated that biofuels could potentially replace all fossil fuels sustainably.
Reducing GHG emissions with renewables
This has been the practical approach taken in places such as Brazil and the U.S., benefiting at the same time from a reduction in energy dependence and the creation of rural jobs and growth. Biofuels replace more than 10% of transport fuels in the U.S. and 27% in Brazil. In Europe, where biofuels policy has been inconsistent, we are not even at 6%. No wonder the most recent European Commission report card on renewables warned of “slow progress” in decarbonizing transport.
The EU traditionally has a strong position in the global fight against climate change and ambitions to become the global leader in renewables. Ahead of the 2015 Paris COP21, the EU bloc agreed to reduce its GHG emissions by at least 40% by 2030 and to have the equivalent of 27% renewables in its energy mix.
These targets are difficult but not impossible to reach, provided the transport sector contributes its fair share to the effort. Transport has indeed become the single biggest source of GHG emissions in Europe because of its heavy reliance on oil, nearly 95%—a situation that may not change by 2030 if we look at the recent plans presented by the European Commission.
In its Renewable Energy Directive (RED) for the period 2021-2030, the Commission proposed to have 6.8% of renewables in transport by 2030, one-third less than what was agreed by 2020 (10%). This policy U-turn is out of sync with the overall EU ambition for increased renewables and GHG emissions reduction.
Technologies that work better together
It’s clear that without a higher level of ambition in the transport sector, the EU will not achieve its low-emission mobility ambition and it will be impossible for many member states to reach their national GHG emissions targets. The Commission also proposed to gradually phase out all conventional biofuels, whether sustainable or not, and to replace them with “more advanced” ones. This approach is clearly a legacy of the past years’ painful discussions but it does not do justice to the latest science and evidence. It clearly ignores that sustainable biofuels—conventional and advanced—will make a greater impact together.
As the new RED proposal lands on the desks of parliamentarians and member state policymakers, we will enter a new period of intense political dialogue in which all parties at stake will try to reinvigorate the conversation. But this is a discussion where evidence and experience needs to prevail.
Biorefineries produce biofuels, of course, but they also bring along other benefits, such as protein-rich animal feed, green electricity (also for hybrids and EVs) and, increasingly, biochemicals and biomaterials. In the future, these biorefineries have the potential to replace everything that oil does today without the associated negative impacts on the environment. Participants in these discussions need to realize the potential that biofuels truly represent.
But for this vision to come true, we need a strong and stable EU framework that supports all sustainable biofuels. Future generations will rightly blame us if we fail to realize the potential of renewables. We are already reaching dangerous levels of climate change, making it urgent to act and irresponsible not to use available solutions. Even if not perfect today, we know now that biofuels can be sustainable and that their strengths and contributions will continue to grow.