COP25 – ethanol brings welcome contribution to transport climate action

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James Cogan: "Nobody at COP25 disagrees with electromobility, cycling, modal shift and fossil-free fuels as the key measures for cutting emissions. It’s about the mix, the timing, who pays, and voter and political appetites." [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report COP25: Is transport decarbonisation pragmatic enough?.

Transport accounts for a quarter of climate-harming greenhouse gas emissions and, at a glance, a quarter of COP25 talks are about cutting transport emissions. They’re the hardest kind to cut, writes James Cogan.

James Cogan is a policy advisor to Ethanol Europe.

The issue is the sheer size of the world’s still-growing fleet of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, and how electromobility and modal shift – no matter how optimistic the forecasts for transition – will take a couple of decades yet to develop into even a modest “significant” portion of transport supply.

The world is so heavily invested in oil, roads and rubber that there seems to be no scenario under which a big enough and early enough shift will happen.   It’s the ultimate example of the slow-to-turn supertanker.

*Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles, including hybrid vehicles that do not plug into the power grid. Source: BP Oil and Gas, “The passenger car fleet of the future”. Add 25% for commercial and haulage. [Ethanol Europe]

Transport industry analysts estimate that it will likely be 2040 before “peak ICE” is reached and 2050 before ICE-mobility dips back down to today’s levels, reaching parity with electromobility and other fossil-free modes.

COP25 isn’t celebrating this clearly.   It is grappling with the big questions of how to cut carbon emissions when much of the world’s population is only now joining the urban car-owning classes, when many developed countries are still holding off on embracing low carbon transport and when the conditions of affluent early-adopter regions like California and Norway aren’t readily transferring to the rest of the world.

Nobody at COP25 disagrees with electromobility, cycling, modal shift and fossil-free fuels as the key measures for cutting emissions.  It’s about the mix, the timing, who pays, and voter and political appetites.

One engineer in Madrid said that since gasoline and diesel are the culprits then the first thing political leaders should do is cut back on gasoline and diesel.   With oil so cheap and abundant, she said, there’s no compelling reason for engineers to design down the amount of it they incorporate into their systems.

Vehicles are getting more efficient but they’re also getting bigger, and numbers are growing.  A 30% cut in transport emissions in ten years will require – as any engineer worth her salt will tell you – an annual decrement of three percent per year.

Society’s engineers will find ways to achieve it, using a mix of solutions, looking in parallel at long term measures, things they can do now and at the relative costs and barriers.  But someone has to tell them to go ahead and do it, she said.

Ethanol falls into the category of fossil-free, quick, economical, works-in-the-current-fleet and compatible with the do no harm principle of Ursula von der Leyen’s European Green Deal.   Ethanol hasn’t the curb appeal of a Tesla or single-speed bike, but it doesn’t require consumer behavioural change either.

Gasoline vehicles account for a third to a half of transport energy demand in most countries.  Ethanol could displace a fifth of that gasoline, and this would give the climate engineer two of the ten decrements she seeks.

The other eight decrements, plus any more on top (the EU is considering a whopping 50% GHG cuts by 2030), will be found in electromobility, cycling, other fossil-free fuels, public transport and more efficient mobility patterns.  The ethanol two will be the easiest two, by a long shot.

Ethanol is already fuelling the equivalent of a hundred million cars worldwide, blended into the gasoline supply of a half a billion vehicles at rates of 3% to 100%.   Thanks to the boxes it ticks, a dozen countries are introducing higher blends of it this year.

Much of Europe uses E5 or E10 (5% or 10% ethanol blending), the USA is rolling out E15, the average blend rate in Brazil is about 30% while France is developing E85 across its retail network.

Climate action doesn’t stop when everybody goes home from Madrid.  COP26 in Glasgow will be the “COP of specific solutions”.

Between now and next December, climate policy engineers everywhere will be doing the math to see just how they’ll get 30% of the GHGs out of their transport systems in just ten years.  COP26 will be the engineer’s COP.

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