Sustainable transport: biofuels can't be the only answer
European Union Member States have to transpose into national law by 2017 a new directive setting a 7% cap on first-generation biofuels in the transport sector, paving the way for a strong role for other green fuels such as electricity and hydrogen
One of the provisions of the Renewable Energy Directive (2009/28/EC) requires all Member States of the European Union to ensure that renewable energy sources account for at least 10% of final energy consumption in the transport sector by 2020. At the time the directive was being drafted, biofuels seemed to be by far the most promising alternative to fossil fuels, in particular oil. It was widely assumed that since biofuels are derived from crops that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, once they are burned by the combustion engine of a vehicle, the overall process is carbon neutral, as no additional carbon is emitted. In a way, this makes sense.
However, using farmland to produce biofuel crops reduces the area available for food crops: this adds to pressure to free up more land, e.g. through deforestation, to grow more food (this process is known as "indirect land use change"). As deforestation increases greenhouse gas emissions, the beneficial effects of using biofuels may be cancelled out.
This is why the new directive establishes a set of measures aimed at ensuring that biofuels are more sustainable. Not only first-generation biofuels cannot account for more than 7% of total energy demand in the transport sector (a figure that is still very ambitious for today's levels); it also requires fuel suppliers to report to EU Member States and to the European Commission the estimated level of greenhouse gas emissions caused by indirect land-use change, so that these are also taken into account when assessing the actual level of emissions savings. In addition, each EU Member State will have to set a national target for the share of "advanced" biofuels (i.e. those sourced from certain types of waste and residues and new sources such as seaweed) in total energy consumption for the transport sector.
Yet, biofuels alone can't be the answer to the climate and environment challenges the transport sector has to rise up to in the coming years. It has been observed that the decarbonisation goals set for the transport sector over the long term cannot be reached without a massive use of other alternative fuels as well, such as methane from renewable sources, electricity and hydrogen. Each of these can be more or less suitable, depending on the specific context and situation. It is likely that the greatest part of biofuels available will be used for long-haul trucking as well as for aviation, which will also rely on fossil fuels at least for a significantly longer timeframe than passenger vehicles. Consequently, the decarbonisation effort will mainly concern light-duty passenger vehicles, which should be largely powered by hydrogen or electricity already by 2035 in order to get close to zero-emission levels by 2050.
In short: new generation biofuels are most welcome to reduce the carbon footprint of transport activities, but let’s keep in mind that decarbonisation will only be possible through a major shift to other alternative fuels already available today, such as electricity and hydrogen in particular.
See the press release of the European Parliament