Biofuels for transport

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In a bid to reduce its dependency on imported oil and tackle global warming, the EU has committed to raising the share of fuels from renewable sources in transport to 10% by 2020. Concerned with warnings that increased agrifuel production could in fact lead to mass deforestation and food shortages, the EU also agreed a set of sustainability criteria for biofuels.

Horizontal Tabs

Overview

A wide range of biomass products such as sugar cane, rapeseed, corn, straw, wood, animal and agriculture residues and waste can be transformed into fuels for transport. 

Generally, a distinction is made between first-generation biofuels (mainly produced from crops such as sugar beet and rapeseed) and  second-generation biofuels (from ligno-cellulosic or 'woody' sources and via new technologies to convert biomass to liquid (BTL)).

The two main first-generation biofuels are bio-ethanol and bio-diesel. Brazil and the US are the main producers of bio-ethanol, while the EU has the largest production of bio-diesel, with Germany, France, Sweden and Spain in the lead.

The advantage of biofuels is that they generally emit fewer greenhouse gases than traditional fuels from oil and gas and the EU has set itself the target of slashing its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020. 

Yet, while total EU-27 emissions fell 7.9% from 1990–2005, transport emissions rose 27% over the same period due to large increases in traffic, so that they now represent roughly one third of the EU’s total CO2 emissions. 

What’s more, a massive 98% of transport fuel consumed in the EU is accounted for by fossil sources, leaving the sector highly exposed to the vagaries of global oil markets. In addition, biofuels can be produced in Europe, unlike oil and gas, which have to be imported. 

EU Policy developments:

  • 2001: the Commission starts to consider the use of more biofuels for transport. In its Communication on alternative fuels for road transport, it identified biofuels, natural gas and hydrogen as possible future energy sources for transport (see LinksDossier on Alternative Transport Fuels). 
  • 2003: the EU adopts Directive 2003/30 EC on the promotion of biofuels. This "biofuels directive" requires member states to set indicative targets for a minimum proportion of biofuels to be placed on the market. These targets were set at 2% in 2005 and 5.75% in 2010
  • As biofuels are more expensive than traditional fuels, the EU also allowed member states to apply a total or partial tax exemption for biofuels (Directive 2003/96 EC).
  • Dec. 2005: the Commission presents a Biomass Action Plan
  • Feb. 2006: Communication "An EU strategy for biofuels" prepares the ground for a review of the biofuels directive, originally planned for the end of 2006.
  • Jan. 2007: Biofuels progress report shows that, in 2005, biofuels reached only 1% of the market and that the EU will miss its 5.75% target for 2010 by a long way. Only two countries (Sweden and Germany) reached the target of 2% by 2005.
  • Jan. 2007: Commission proposes revising EU standards for petrol, diesel and gasoil, set out in the 'Fuel Quality Directive' (FQD), to allow for a greater use of biofuels (see LinksDossier on the FQD).
  • Mar. 2007: EU leaders commit to a binding target ensuring that 10% of transport fuel in each member state is provided by biofuels by 2020 (EurActiv 09/03/08).
  • Jan. 2008: Commission finally presents its review of the 2003 biofuels directive, as part of a broader directive on renewable energies (EurActiv 24/01/08). The directive confirms the 10% target for 2020 and proposes "sustainability criteria" to prevent mass investment in cheaper but environmentally harmful biofuels.
  • Dec. 2008:  EU leaders endorse the energy and climate change package, including a directive on the promotion of renewable energies. The final version softens the 10% biofuels target to include other renewable sources. 
  • By 31 Dec. 2009: Commission to report on requirements for sustainability scheme for energy uses of biomass.
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