The dismal prospect of advanced biofuels in the EU

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Used cooking oil can be reused for bio-diesel. [Shutterstock]

Advanced biofuels are proposed as the next fuels to replace oil, but the EU regulatory environment is fuzzy and uncertain to lure investors and some questionable solutions may benefit the most – in addition to oil, writes Zoltán Szabó.

Zoltán Szabó is a sustainability consultant.

Since publication, this text has been modified by the author.

Transport needs to decarbonise. It is the only sector with growing greenhouse gas emissions. No silver bullets are available. Electrification is the future, but it will do nothing for the existing vehicle fleet, and since it takes 10.7 years to replace the average car in Europe, we have got at least two interim decades where solutions are badly needed. Oil needs to be replaced.

One of the key elements of the Renewable Energy Directive under revision in the EU is the proposal to increase the share of advanced biofuels. Arguably, the largest scale in advanced biofuels is with using agricultural residues, such as wheat straw, corn stover or sawdust (forestry residues) and energy crops. There is a great sustainable biomass potential across Europe. So it is understandable that cellulosic ethanol has a prominent role in the deployment of advanced biofuels.

Regrettably, advanced biofuels are proposed at the expense of conventional biofuels, not oil. Among others, the Nova Institute finds that conventional ethanol, such as from feed corn, wheat or sugar beet, are as sustainable as advanced biofuels. They will remain cost competitive, so why would investors risk their money when the regulatory environment is so uncertain?

Advanced biofuels definition risks being loosened by including fuels using waste, which are great, albeit their scale is limited, cellulosic pathways, discussed above, and crucially, other pathways, which may be best described as fake waste fuels. Used cooking oil (UCO) is a waste in the EU, but it is not in any other parts of the world, consequently, if imported to Europe, it comes with an indirect land use change impact (ILUC). Recent reports on ILUC find that imported UCO’s indirect climate impact is not lower than European conventional biodiesel. And the scope for collecting more UCO in Europe is very limited, so any increase will need to rely on imports.

Another waste-only-in-EU-proposal is palm oil residues (POME, PFAD) which, not unlike UCO, are used as animal feed (or energy), and not a waste. Its ILUC impact may be similar to palm oil, perhaps making it worse for the climate than fossil diesel. Molasses are also listed as advanced biofuels, but it is also not a waste, so it has ILUC impact perhaps similar in scale to conventional biofuels. These residue fuels are all cheaper and less risky than true advanced biofuels.

The vote on 9 October in the Transport Committee in the EP rejecting its own report shows how policy-making is divided in the EU. Unless the EU starts making sense in the definition of advanced biofuels, abandons its aim to phase out conventional ethanol (thereby creating market uncertainty) and adopts targets for renewable energy in transport (say 15%) alongside targets for true advanced biofuels by 2030, the future of cellulosic biofuels will not be bright in Europe, with oil having the last laugh.

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