Europe’s biofuels debate needs to focus on implementation

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

Ethanol is an alcohol made from biomass such as wheat, maize or sugar beet which is mainly added to gasoline and used as a biofuel for certain motor vehicles. [ePURE]

As the debate kicks off on transport within Europe’s 2030 climate and energy framework, policymakers and industry must not lose sight of the challenges, says Robert Wright.

Robert Wright is secretary general of the European Renewable Ethanol Association (ePURE).

Today, transport is Europe’s second biggest source of GHG emissions, accounting for 26% of total GHG emissions. Our transport sector is simply far too reliant on oil, with 95% of its energy coming from oil products. 64% of Europe’s total oil use is in the transport sector. This is an unsustainable situation that requires urgent attention. European renewable ethanol is a low carbon and renewable fuel alternative, with around 60% GHG savings compared to petrol, and is part of the solution.

Our industry has made a strong contribution to decarbonising European transport and diversifying our energy sources. In 2014, the use of our green transport fuel reduced Europe’s GHG emissions by 5 million tonnes, equivalent to taking 3 million cars off Europe’s roads for 1 year and displaced 4.8% of Europe’s petrol volumes. This shaved €1.5 billion off the EU’s oil bill in the process. Our industry can do more, but we need better policy conditions in member states.

The European Commission recently estimated that in 2014 the share of renewable energy in Europe’s transport sector was 5.7%. That’s just over half way towards the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) binding target of a 10% share of renewable energy use in transport by 2020.

While half of member states have made good progress towards the 10% target, the Commission concluded that many are at risk of not reaching the 10% target because they have not sufficiently developed their biofuels markets. More progress is needed.

The political uncertainty caused by the indirect land use change (ILUC) debate has certainly not helped. At the same time there have also been implementation problems with the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD), another key driver of EU biofuels policy because it contains a target to reduce the GHG intensity of fuels by 6% by 2020. The recent EU agreement on ILUC means it is now time for member states to fully implement the RED and FQD. But challenges lie ahead.

Last year the JEC Biofuels Programme, an initiative of the European Commission’s Joint Research Center, outlined different scenarios towards meeting the RED and FQD targets. They found that the most favourable scenarios are those where the use of ethanol is maximised through the use of higher ethanol-petrol blends such as E10 and E20. But with E10 fuel only currently available in France, Germany and Finland, and E20 not currently on the market at all, member states must prioritise their roll-out. Member states should also increase the ambition of their own national targets for biofuels use, including introducing binding rules for advanced biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol.

These are practical measures that will help member states to achieve the RED and FQD targets and require no major technological adjustments in the fuel infrastructure or vehicle fleet because today’s vehicle fleet is almost fully compatible with E10. Supply is not constrained as Europe already has enough ethanol production capacity (8.7 billion litres) to provide 83% of the ethanol needed (10.6 billion litres) in a scenario of full penetration of the petrol market by E10.

With only 5 years left for member states to fulfill Europe’s 2020 climate and energy targets for transport, the time for talk is over. Urgent action is now needed, and the next 2 years are crucial. Increasing the amount of biofuel on the EU market must be a priority, and it can be achieved entirely sustainably. In its progress report the Commission found that an increase in biofuels consumption to meet the 2020 targets will not detrimentally impact on food prices or availability or land use.

At a time when high-profile public figures such as the Pope, and institutions such as the IMF, are questioning society’s continued oil addiction, European policymakers should take a step back and acknowledge that increasing the share of sustainable biofuels in the transport fuel mix is a necessary step towards reducing our oil addiction and decarbonising Europe’s transport fuels. We must get 2020 right first to pave the way for an ambitious 2030 climate and energy package!

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