Biofuels industry criticises ‘inconsistent’ transport decarbonisation policy

Biofuels industry criticises ‘inconsistent’ transport decarbonisation policy

EURACTIV — 2023-10-25

News from Brussels

This differing approach to the green credentials of first-generation biofuels across EU legislation has drawn criticism from industry.

A European Commission report analysing the achievement of the 2020 renewable energy goals found that the consumption of biodiesel and bioethanol has increased since 2016, with bioenergy the primary means to decarbonise the EU transport sector at present.

“Consumption of food and feed crop based-biofuels continues to represent a large share of renewable energy consumption in transport while the consumption of advanced biofuels was lower but increased significantly in recent years,” the report said.

The high contribution of biodiesel and bioethanol to cutting road emissions “has led to a growth in biofuel consumption,” it added.

However, despite EU legislation sanctioning the use of first-generation biofuels to replace petrol and diesel for road vehicles, both bioethanol and biodiesel are considered similar to fossil fuels in legislation governing aviation and maritime fuels.

Craig Winneker, director of communications with biofuels trade association ePURE, called for an EU policy approach that is “more pragmatic than dogmatic”.

“The revised [Renewable Energy Directive] confirms the sustainability of crop-based biofuels including renewable ethanol and gives member states the flexibility to use them to meet transport de-fossilisation goals,” he told Euractiv. 

“But other EU legislation in ‘Fit for 55’ marginalises or even prohibits the contribution of these sustainable biofuels to achieving climate goals,” he added, referencing the EU’s climate laws package.

Renewable Energy Directive cap remains

As in the previous version of the law, the contribution of crop-based biofuels to road and rail transport renewable energy targets is capped at 7% of the total. Countries may also not go beyond a 1% increase compared to 2020 levels.

The biofuels industry has pointed to policymakers’ unwillingness to revise down the 7% cap as confirmation of “the sustainability and importance” of crop-based biofuels.

Despite a strong NGO campaign, the breadth of permitted crop-based biofuel feedstocks also remains unaltered. At present, only palm oil is set to be phased out as a fuel feedstock by 2030. 

In the run-up to the Renewable Energy Directive revision, NGOs mounted a campaign for soy to be added to the list of restricted feedstocks, arguing that it contributes to the clearing of land in Latin America.

However, the threshold at which a feedstock is considered to overtly contribute to deforestation abroad (known as indirect land use change, or ILUC) was not brought down, meaning soy remains below the level that would require the biofuels industry to phase it out.

This EU sanctioning of the use of crop-based biofuels under the Renewable Energy Directive is at odds with the Commission’s approach under ReFuelEU Aviation and FuelEU Maritime – two flagship regulations to boost the quantity of green fuels in planes and ships.

Under both pieces of legislation, the so-called advanced biofuels, made from residues and waste materials, as well as hydrogen-based synthetic fuels are considered green fuels.

In justifying the rejection of feed and food crop-based aviation biofuels, the ReFuelEU Aviation text cites “sustainability reasons”, noting that over 99% of currently used aviation fuels are of fossil origin, meaning that there is little demand for crop-based biofuels at present. 

“It is therefore appropriate to avoid the creation of a potentially large demand for food and feed crops-based biofuels by promoting their use under this Regulation,” the legislation states.

The FuelEU Maritime regulation repeats the same arguments as its aviation counterpart in justifying the decision to exclude crop-based biofuels, adding that competition with road transport is also a concern.

“The non-eligibility of food- and feed crop-based fuels for contributing to the objectives of this Regulation also minimises any risk to the slowing down of decarbonisation of the transport sector, which could otherwise result from a shift of crop-based biofuels from road transport to maritime transport,” the text states.

Winneker questioned why different pieces of legislation “do not treat biofuels consistently”.

“In some cases, biofuels are simply discriminated against even where they could provide a big boost to decarbonisation,” he said and contrasted the more restrictive European stance to a more open approach in other parts of the world.

“The EU’s approach has been more to play favourites and hope for the best, undermining all other available alternative solutions to decarbonisation,” he said.

“The consequences are serious, as the EU is only making it more difficult to achieve ambitious GHG-reduction goals.”