The recent confirmation that the European Union will no longer have a target for biofuels in transport after 2020 is sending shockwaves across the industry, which lashed out at the bloc’s “populist” policies at a Brussels event this week.
“There is no silver bullet” when it comes to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the transport sector, according to the European Commission, which will outline policy options in a “communication” on the topic in June or July.
“It will assess the different options in a holistic manner,” said Bernd Kuepker, an official at the Commission’s energy directorate who was speaking on Wednesday (11 May) at an event hosted by the Bavarian representation to the EU.
“So it will look at all the different options” including fuel efficiency, the promotion of electric vehicles, and “the shift to advanced renewable fuels,” said Kuepker, who is in charge of renewable energies at DG energy.
Officials confirmed last week that EU regulations requiring member states to use “at least 10%” renewable energy in transport will be scrapped after 2020, effectively dropping a mandate for using biofuels in transport beyond that date.
EU laws requiring member states to use “at least 10%” renewable energy in transport will be scrapped after 2020, the European Commission confirmed, hoping to set aside a protracted controversy surrounding the environmental damage caused by biofuels.
‘No real alternative’ to 1st generation biofuels
That news is having a chilling effect on biofuel makers, who warned they need regulatory certainty to invest in so-called second generation biofuels that do not compete with food crops.
“We will not invest in any advanced technology unless we are sure that the regulation will stay at least for a period of five to ten years,” said Jörg Jacob, CEO of German Biofuels, a company producing biodiesel from rapeseed oils.
“There is no real alternative today to the first generation biofuels which we are producing,” he said at the event. “There will be in the future – in ten or fifteen years – if the preconditions can be achieved. But up to now, we have a functioning system of biofuels and we should not endanger them by regulations or by political discussions like ILUC,” he stated, referring to the ongoing controversy surrounding the indirect land use change of biofuels.
Discussions about land displacement and food scarcity caused by biofuels are driven more by “ideology” or “populism” rather than science, he added, lashing out at the EU’s decision to drop its biofuels target after 2020.
An EU directive on ILUC adopted last year limits to 7% the use of harmful biofuels which compete with crops grown on agricultural land. It also sets an indicative 0.5% target for second generation biofuels, whose contribution would count double towards the 10% renewable energy target for transport for 2020.
The European Parliament gave its final approval on Tuesday (28 April) to a law limiting the use of crop-based biofuel in the transport sector.
But the distinction between first and second generation biofuels is unhelpful, according to Alexander Knebel, a spokesperson for the German renewable energies agency, who was speaking at the Brussels event.
“There are rather transitions, I would argue,” he said. Citing biogas as an example, Knebel underlined that “the process of methanisation also lends itself to other raw materials” which can all be used in transport.
His view was echoed by Robert Götz, head of renewable energies at the Bavarian ministry of economic affairs, who said the controversy surrounding biofuels’ contribution to deforestation or food scarcity was a distraction.
“In our opinion, there are not yet convincing scientific proof” that biofuels contribute to displacement of food crops for fuel production, Götz said, referring to Indirect Land Use Change, or ILUC.
“It’s a theoretical debate that distracts us from the actual need to take action now,” he claimed.
Götz said it was crucial to continue research on more sustainable second generation biofuels and bring them to market as quickly as possible.
“But conventional and advanced biofuels are not in competition to each other,” he said, adding “we cannot afford waiting for future fuels” to decarbonise the transport sector. “We need to use any kind of sustainable form of energy – whether electricity, conventional or advanced biofuels”.
Trucking, aviation and shipping
Biofuels are seen as a promising alternative to diesel particularly in the trucking sector, where electrification is still a distant prospect.
“To achieve CO2 reductions there, biofuels will still play a role,” said Nienke Smeets, an official from the Dutch ministry for infrastructure and the environment who was speaking at the event.
Member states “can do a lot” to reduce transport emissions at the national level, Smeets said, mentioning tax incentives and subsidies. “But there are a few things we need at EU level,” she added, mentioning “clarity on biofuels legislation post-2020” as “absolutely essential”.
“We need strict CO2 limits for cars in order to get zero emission vehicles on the market. And we also need them for trucks,” Smeets said.
In the Netherlands, the government has passed legislation requiring all new passenger cars to be zero emissions as of 2035, she explained, which means switching to electric mobility for light duty vehicles by that date.
“But we know that for trucks, LNG is a more likely option,” alongside biofuels and hybrid electric solutions, Smeets said, adding hydrogen could also be an option for the longer term.
“For aviation and shipping, we also see a potential for biofuels because there are not that many other options to decarbonise.”
Airlines have committed to ramping up their use of biofuels in the belief that they can contribute to achieving the sector's pledges on carbon-neutral growth. For 2050, the EU foresees 40% use of "sustainable low carbon fuels" in aviation.
Sustainable 2nd generation biofuels are considered an important element in efforts to decarbonise the transport sector.
The international aviation industry is committed to achieving "carbon-neutral growth" by 2020, but that can only happen with a substantial increase in biofuels use in air transport. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has set a target of ramping up biofuels use to 10% of all consumption by 2017, saying that they have the potential to reduce the industry's footprint by up to 80%.
Truck makers also see a potential for biofuels in heavy-duty vehicles, where electrification is still a relatively distant prospect. “We already have around 7% biodiesel, but in the future, we will have more Hydro-Treated Vegetable Oil, or HVO. Then we also see natural gas in the form of methane or biogas. And in the longer term, we see Dimethyl ether (DME) as a promising fuel,” said Niklas Gustafsson, Chief Sustainability Officer at the Volvo Group.
The market size for biodiesel in the EU was 10 million metric tons per year in 2012. This is likely to increase to approximately 21 million metric tons by 2020, according to Kaidi Finland, a company making 2nd generation biodiesel from wood-based biomass.
- 18 Nov-10 Feb: Public consultation on Renewable Energy Directive for the period after 2020
- 10 Feb-10 May: Public consultation on bioenergy policy for the period after 2020
- June-July: Commission communication on the decarbonisation of transport
- End 2016: Commission to table proposed revision of Renewable Energy Directive