This article is part of our special report Can advanced biofuels really work?.
The EU needs a more realistic target for advanced biofuels in transport, green campaigners have warned, saying proper sustainability criteria should be introduced to avoid the “mistakes of the past” when biofuels attracted criticism for causing deforestation and environmental degradation in the developing world.
“The target of 3.6% for advanced biofuels, proposed by the European Commission and supported by the European Parliament, is too high to be reached sustainably,” said Laura Buffet, an expert in oil and biofuels at Transport and Environment (T&E), a green campaign group.
“What is needed is a lower, more realistic target, a modified list of eligible advanced feedstocks and a tailored sustainability framework,” she told EURACTIV.com.
“For example, in the case of forest and agricultural residues, we should leave enough of it on the ground to avoid negative impacts on the soil and biodiversity. In the case of waste, it is crucial to respect the waste hierarchy,” she explained.
As part of the Renewable Energy Directive review (RED II), the European Commission proposed a gradual phase-out of crop-based biofuels, which should be replaced by “more advanced biofuels” that do not compete with food crops.
For 2030, the EU executive proposed reducing the contribution of conventional biofuels in transport from a maximum of 7% in 2021 to 3.8% in 2030. It also set an obligation to raise the share of other “low emissions fuels” such as renewable electricity and advanced biofuels in transport to 6.8%.
The European Commission’s proposal defines advanced biofuels as those that are “produced from feedstocks listed in part A of Annex IX”. The executive believes that advanced biofuels have a lower environmental impact compared to crop-based biofuels and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
Regarding advanced biofuels, the executive set a binding target at 0.5% of energy consumed in road and rail in 2021 and ending at 3.6% in 2030.
But NGOs claim that the EU executive is again focusing on quantity than quality, as not all raw materials in the Commission advanced biofuels lists are wastes and residues.
They also claim that there is no objective scientific analysis of their GHG impacts, raising questions about the validity of the process that was followed to fill the list.
On 17 January, the European Parliament proposed a 12% target for renewables in transport, which also includes 10% for advanced biofuels, such as waste-based biofuels and recycled carbon fuels.
The Parliament removed, for instance, molasses from the Commission’s proposed list but added some other feedstocks.
T&E suggests lowering the expectations to a 2.3% target by 2030 as the targets are not realistic within sustainable boundaries.
T&E wants to give more space to renewable electricity and at the same time, clear and proper sustainability criteria to be provided in a tailor-made way for every advanced biofuel including biodiversity and soil impact.
On the other hand, first-generation ethanol producers complain that the Commission’s proposal, in general, is not science-based and refuses to accept the positive environmental impact of ethanol compared to fossil fuels and biodiesel.
The industry says that ethanol has a low risk of indirect land use and at least 64% greenhouse savings compared to fossil fuels.
“Considering that the target is too ambitious and advanced biofuels will not deliver, oil will keep its market share and the climate will suffer”, commented Zoltán Szabó, an ethanol industry expert.
Sustainability is ‘precondition’
Buffet explained that advanced biofuels from waste and residues can help decarbonise the transport sector and avoid using food for fuel, but clear sustainability rules are necessary to avoid repeating the mistakes made with the first generation.
“And just because something is not a food crop doesn’t mean that it is a sustainable renewable fuel. Some of the feedstocks currently listed as ‘advanced biofuels’ in the RED II deliver no GHG savings compared to fossil fuels because of their high indirect impacts.”
The European renewable ethanol association (ePURE) agrees that sustainability is a precondition for any form of renewable energy to be able to contribute to decarbonisation objectives.
“Sustainability criteria and traceability requirements equivalent to those of crop-based biofuels should be introduced for all biomass, irrespective of the end use or feedstock. This would ensure their environmental performance and a level playing field between energy sources,” ePURE’s Craig Winneker told EURACTIV.
“Implementation of the waste hierarchy is necessary to mobilise the sustainable potential of waste feedstock. It also prevents non-waste feedstock from contributing to renewables targets reserved for waste, and avoids the generation of waste which contradicts the objective of waste prevention,” he added.
EU sources said that the Commission has already proposed reinforcing the sustainability criteria for bioenergy, including ensuring that forest biomass continues to be sourced from sustainably managed forests and that forests carbon stocks are conserved.
The same sources said that biofuels are required to emit 70% fewer emissions than fossil fuel alternatives, while through the Governance Regulation, member states and the Commission will monitor the bioenergy impacts on sustainable development.