This article is part of our special report RED III: Europe’s reality check.
The EU’s decision to cap the share of crop-based biofuels in the bloc’s energy mix risks hampering efforts to decarbonise the transport sector, industry has warned ahead of the revision of the renewable energy directive.
Environmentalists, on the contrary, say the EU executive is not going far enough in stemming the use of biofuels, arguing that fuels from virgin crops cannot be sustainable.
The updated renewable energy directive proposal, due to be presented on 14 July as part of a broader package of climate legislation, upholds a limit on the use of so-called first-generation biofuels made from food crops.
A 2015 update of the directive placed a 7% limit on how much crop-based biofuel can be used in the transport sector, and counted towards the renewable energy goals of EU member states.
“The contribution of biofuels from food and feed crops for decarbonisation is limited due to their impact on indirect land use change and their contribution should be minimised,” states a leaked proposal, seen by EURACTIV.
Indirect land use change (ILUC) refers to the designation of land for biofuel production that would otherwise be reserved for agricultural use. Environmentalists say this could lead to areas such as forests and wetlands being converted for agriculture, releasing large amounts of carbon and cancelling out emissions savings made in industry.
The draft proposal sets a target of sourcing 38-40% of energy from renewables by 2030, with the renewables target for transport rising from 15% to 26%.
Industry calls for biofuels to be “unleashed”
Emmanuel Desplechin, Secretary General of ePURE, the European renewable ethanol association, welcomed the higher targets for renewables in transport, but criticised the EU executive’s dismissal of first-generation biofuels.
“Unfortunately, the Commission has recently shown it still seems inclined to seek to minimise the contribution of crop-based biofuels from the road transport energy mix – even though such biofuels have been the main contributor to displacing fossil fuel and are essential to meeting 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets,” Desplechin said in emailed comments.
“Without liquid and gaseous biofuels, 99.97% of EU road transport energy would be fossil,” he added.
Transport, which currently accounts for around 27% of EU emissions, is the only sector that has seen emissions increase in recent years, due in part to its high reliance on fossil fuels. Despite efforts to decarbonise the sector, a 2019 study found renewables made up less than 10% of transport fuel.
The European Biodiesel Board (EBB), an industry group representing biodiesel producers, warned the limit on crop-based biofuels will harm efforts to cut emissions from heavy vehicles, such as vans, buses, and trucks.
“Today, crop-based biofuels such as biodiesel are the main contributor to transport decarbonisation, have a positive impact on protein production and contribute to the circular economy. Therefore, the existing cap on sustainable crop-based biofuels should also be reassessed upwards to unleash their full potential,” EBB Secretary General Xavier Noyon told EURACTIV.
Noyon cautioned that the incorporation of renewable energy into road transport should not be “artificially inflated by excessive multipliers”.
Multipliers act as an incentive to use certain energy sources by allowing them to be counted at a higher value against EU targets. For example, waste-based biofuels, such as used cooking oil, have a multiplier of two, meaning they can be double counted towards targets.
The crop-based biofuel industry is a frequent critic of these multipliers, arguing that they allow EU countries to give the impression that they are using more renewables than is the case.
The proposal also increases the sub-target for ‘advanced biofuels’ – made from non-food sources such as forestry or agricultural waste – from 3.5% to 5.5%.
The increased mandate was welcomed by Gloria Gaupmann, chair of the Advanced Biofuel Coalition, who said it was key to driving investment in advanced biofuel production capacity.
Several EU countries have yet to fully incorporate the 2019 renewable energy directive update into law, leading some in the industry to worry that the frequent revision of standards will harm investment levels.
“This focus will help companies to continue investing during the regulatory uncertainty inevitable to any policy revision,” said Gaupmann.
Green activists criticise “biofuels mess”
But environmentalists say moves to limit crop-based biofuels do not go far enough.
Alex Mason, senior policy officer at WWF’s European Policy Office, called the European Commission’s analysis of the draft renewable energy directive update “confused and unscientific,” and said it goes against the advice of its own inhouse scientific body, the Joint Research Centre.
“[Dedicated biofuel and energy crops] typically increase emissions compared to fossil fuels but the Commission projects big increases in their use and isn’t even considering new restrictions – on the basis that this isn’t something that has been the subject of public debate,” he told EURACTIV via email.
Clean mobility NGO Transport & Environment criticised the EU executive for setting higher renewable targets for transport “without fixing the biofuels mess”.
“Instead of just limiting crop-based biofuels, it should phase them out of the transport target in 2030 and follow the several EU countries which are excluding palm oil and soy biofuels much earlier,” Laura Buffet, energy director at T&E, told EURACTIV in emailed comments.
Buffet said that while advanced biofuels can play a role in decarbonising transport, the Commission’s decision to raise the advanced biofuels target could have unintended consequences.
“Going for a higher target could drive unsustainable practices and divert some feedstocks from their existing uses in other sectors, going against the EU’s principles on waste and circular economy,” she added.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]