The European Commission has strongly denied accusations that its proposed mandate to support sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions by diverting waste-based biofuels from the road sector.
The proposed ReFuelEU regulation, tabled in July as part of European Commission plans to halve EU emissions by 2030, mandates that planes uptake a set percentage of SAF when refuelling at EU airports.
But EWABA, which represents over 35 companies from the waste-based and advanced biofuels supply chain, says the inclusion of fuels made from waste lipids, such as used cooking oils and tallow, will essentially ringfence the industry for big suppliers and harm efforts to decarbonise vehicles and ships.
Filip Cornelis, aviation director with the Commission’s transport department, rejected those claims during a lively debate on the role of SAFs, hosted by EURACTIV on Tuesday (28 September).
“I really have to take issue with the claim that somehow our proposals will increase greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. This is an absolutely ridiculous assertion and there is no evidence for that at all,” he said.
The aviation director said the Commission’s July package of clean energy and climate laws has been designed to cut emissions across all transport sectors.
“We’ve looked into this very carefully. Obviously, we don’t want to plunder one sector just to feed another one,” he said.
“What we are doing is, on the contrary, finally going to take measures to significantly reduce emissions in a sector that has in the past mostly been paying for emissions reduction in other sectors through the Emission Trading System [the EU’s carbon market] and offsetting,” he added.
Cornelis stated that the EU executive’s impact assessment showed that thanks to increased vehicle electrification, the shift from road fuels to aviation fuels would be around 3% by 2030, rising to 6% by 2050, while only around 28% of used cooking oil – one of two waste lipids approved by the Commission for green jet fuel – would be needed by 2030.
But these assertions were met with scepticism by the European Waste-based & Advanced Biofuels Association (EWABA).
“The problem we see is that the impact assessment supporting this proposal is unfortunately completely wrong,” said Michael Fiedler-Panajotopoulos, the president of EWABA.
“It mentions no volumes about availability of feedstock and the assertion that there will be enough feedstock with any substantiation is puzzling to us,” he continued.
The EWABA president cited a study that found that of the 15 million tonnes of waste lipids available, the Commission’s proposal would require 11 to 12 million. Significantly scaling up the collection of waste-oils is also not realistic, he said, pointing out that collection is now “matured” and the percentage increase in collection has fallen to single digits.
“Availability doesn’t equal collectability,” he added.
The EWABA chief cautioned that, as it stands, the legislation will hurt the chances of meeting the Commission’s environmental aims.
“The EU will be increasing its greenhouse gas emissions by millions of tonnes if this proposal goes ahead,” he said.
Michael Fiedler-Panajotopoulos also warned that ReFuelEU would essentially ringfence scarce waste feedstock for large refineries, which have the capability to produce jet fuel.
He said this would cut off the supply for smaller biofuels refineries and cautioned that the prospect of shuttered factories would make it difficult for the proposal to pass through the EU’s other legislative branches.
“MEPs and the Council will not allow 50+ factories around Europe to close down for a ringfenced, separate mandate for aviation,” he said.
The EWABA president affirmed that waste lipids have a role to play in decarbonising aviation, but said they should not be included in a separate blending mandate.
Chelsea Baldino, a researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation, shared EWABA’s concerns over the diversion of waste feedstock.
“First, these waste oils [such as used cooking oils] are already being used in the road sector and diverting them may not provide a net benefit for the climate at all. And second, waste oils will not be available at the scale needed to meet ReFuelEU Aviation’s ambition,” she said.
She described boosting the use of waste-based fuels in aviation at the expense of the road sector as a carbon “accounting gimmick” and said that the process to refine waste lipids into jet fuel is more costly and cumbersome than refining them into biodiesel for cars.
“If you’re diverting waste oils from the road sector to aviation that is much more energy intensive – it requires more hydrogen for hydroprocessing – and the refining of aviation fuels is less efficient than putting them into the road sector,” she said.
The ICCT researcher also warned that outside of the sub-mandate for electro-fuels, used cooking oil-derived fuels may be used to meet the entirety of the SAF mandate up to 2030. To prevent this, the ICCT suggest capping waste oils at 1.7% for aviation.
“These waste oils are already decarbonising the road sector and in the future they can decarbonize the marine sector,” she said.
In response, Filip Cornelis characterised ReFuelEU Aviation as part of a holistic approach by the Commission to cut carbon emissions.
“Our view is that there is no feedstock reserved for any particular use. We are promoting an overall policy to decarbonise different sectors, different modes of transport, with all the means that are available, and we do take issue with those who claim that somehow a certain feedstock should be reserved for certain uses,” he said.
EWABA countered that this is, in fact, what the Commission is proposing, as ReFuelEU would essentially reserve feedstock for a handful of large producers at the expense of smaller waste biodiesel companies.
Panellists at the virtual conference uniformly agreed on the need to increase the supply of electro-fuels across the EU.
“We share the view that the future, particularly in the longer term, is synthetic fuels, but they need to be produced from truly green electricity,” said Filip Cornelis.
“We envisage that the share of synthetic fuels will overtake the share of bio-based fuels sometime around the middle of now and 2050, and synthetic fuels will make up the majority of fuels by 2050,” he added.
Daniel Vilela Oliveira, a policy officer with the German environment ministry, touted electro-fuels as a superior option to biomass-based fuels to decarbonise flights, as they can be scaled up without diverting fuels from other sectors.
For this reason, he said, the German government is basing its SAF strategy solely on so-called RFNBOs – renewable fuels of non-biological origin.
However, for electro-fuels to be sustainable, large quantities of renewable energy is needed. If electricity from fossil fuels is used to manufacture electro-fuels, they become a sustainability risk, cautioned Chelsea Baldino.
The focus of the discussion, the ReFuelEU Aviation proposal, will now be negotiated by lawmakers in the European Parliament and Council before a final version enters into force, a process which is likely to take around two years.
> Watch the full EURACTIV event on YouTube below:
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]