Biofuels are vital to decarbonising the EU’s road transport

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

MEPs are asking fuel pumps to provide more sustainable fuel from 2021. [Louis Concorde/Flickr]

The Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones – it ended because we found better alternatives. The same must become of the Oil Age, if we are to fulfil our COP21 commitments, writes Robert Wright.

Robert Wright is the secretary general of ePURE, the European Renewable Ethanol association.

2016 is a crucial year for European transport with the European Commission due to publish a communication on decarbonising transport this summer. Europe’s poor record when it comes to transport greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions means the Commission must present a clear set of policy measures to reduce transport’s carbon footprint. Road transport emissions now account for 25% of Europe’s total GHG emissions and will become its largest source of emissions if remedial action is not taken.

The core reason that road transport is such a problem is that 95% of energy demand for our vehicles is still met by fossil fuels. Mobility is crucial to the economy and to the daily lives of EU citizens, but with road traffic levels projected to increase by 30% by 2030, and with concerns growing over air pollution, cutting transport emissions must be a political priority.

At the COP21, Europe committed to cutting its GHG emissions by at least 40% by 2030 – an ambitious target that relies on emissions reductions in transport. The Commission has estimated that to achieve this 40% reduction, will require the incorporation of 12-14% renewable energy sources in transport and a 12-20% reduction in transport emissions.

Reducing energy use in transport through vehicle, engine and fuel efficiency measures is crucial because the transport sector consumes over 30% of all energy used in Europe. But while today the focus is on energy efficiency, it is not the only, or even the best, way to reduce transport’s climate footprint. Potential “rebound effects” in energy consumption can undermine any energy savings gained through efficiency measures.

Replacing the oil used in transport with low carbon alternatives must be the ultimate aim. The Stone Age did not end because humans ran out of stones – it ended because we found better alternatives. The same must now become of the Oil Age. Keeping oil in the ground is crucial to making the COP 21’s ambitions a reality.

In transport there is a range of low carbon alternatives available and all of them are potentially important. Low carbon fuels, such as ethanol, already displace 5% of oil use in our road transport. Ethanol is already available and can be blended into petrol to reduce petrol’s GHG emissions. This means that ethanol can be used in the existing and future vehicle fleet and fuel infrastructure.

Hybrid and electric cars are already on the market and will certainly play a greater role in the future. But at the moment, these cars make up less than 5% of all new cars sold in the EU and would require mass vehicle replacement and new infrastructure in a short timeframe to make any serious impact on transport emissions.

Today’s electric vehicles also remain largely dependent on fossil fuels for the power they use because Europe’s electricity grid is still heavily dependent on fossil fuel. Scrapping existing vehicles will also incur a significant carbon and economic cost. So there needs to be a measure of realism in the debate about electrification. It is not a panacea.

In 2030 the vast majority of existing and future vehicles will still run on internal combustion engines, so it must be a climate priority to reduce emissions from these vehicles first and foremost. The recent diesel emissions scandal cast doubt over the reliability of engine technologies to reduce emissions, meaning the need to decarbonise the fuels we use is even more important.

Without a binding policy framework promoting low carbon fuel replacements for petrol and diesel, the 12-20% emissions reduction needed in transport will simply not be achieved. This is confirmed by a recent study by E4Tech, which found that the absence of a binding policy to decarbonise transport fuels will lead to increased use of fossil fuels in transport – rendering Europe’s 2030 climate strategy dysfunctional. Other options, such as electric vehicles, will simply not ramp up fast enough to make a difference before 2030.

As we look ahead, a major policy objective must be to ensure that Europe decarbonises its transport fuels by using only the most sustainable low carbon fuels. Some biofuels are clearly better than others for the climate and we need to distinguish in policy between those that are truly low carbon and those that are not. All sustainable options must be kept on the table.

European ethanol is certified low carbon with an average over 63% GHG savings compared to the petrol it substitutes. Study after study, including GLOBIOM, prove ethanol is a sustainable, low carbon fuel – the type of good biofuel that Europe should promote further.

Displacing 10% of Europe’s petrol with ethanol through E10 fuel, a fuel blend widely available in France, Finland and Germany, would reduce GHG emissions from petrol vehicles by over 6%. But more ambition and greater use of ethanol is needed. Brazil currently mixes its petrol with up to 28% ethanol, so why not Europe?