Europe's love affair with biofuels is on the rocks

Can Europe fall in love with biofuels again? This was the question a big biofuels producer asked in his Valentine’s letter to EU policy makers. The occasion for his love letter was, of course, the European Commission’s proposed reform of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which regulates biofuels in Europe.

The letter makes for pleasant reading but it also begs the question: is this EU-biofuels love affair actually worth saving? The starting point here should be an honest assessment of why the relationship went sour.

It all started with big expectations. In 2009 the EU decided that by 2020 10% of EU transport was going to be powered by renewable energy – in reality mostly by biofuels. But because there were no adequate quality controls, the market was flooded with biofuels that are worse for the climate than fossil fuels. For example, crop biodiesel – which makes up 80% of the market – is, on average, 80% worse for the climate than fossil diesel and is increasingly sourced from palm oil. Last week, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on palm oil and deforestation. The resolution, which was adopted with overwhelming support, acknowledges that the EU’s biofuels policy has led to deforestation, land grabbing and the destruction of peoples’ and animals’ livelihoods.

It is a scandal and it is one that was entirely predictable. NGOs, including T&E, warned that without accounting for for indirect land-use change (ILUC) emissions, the EU’s biofuels mandate would be counterproductive.

So the basis for ‘giving biofuels another chance’ needs to be a mutual understanding that the priority is to, first, clean up the mess we’ve created. In relationship terms: denying there is a problem makes it hard to rebuild trust.

We need to completely end support for crop-based biodiesel as soon as possible. The Commission’s proposal goes in that direction but stops halfway. A real clean sheet would be to completely phase out policy support for all land-based biofuels. And yes, that includes crop ethanol. Granted, ethanol may not be as bad for the climate as biodiesel – some types of ethanol even save on greenhouse gas emissions. But ethanol production is also very land-intensive and inefficient. The yield of one football pitch worth of ethanol crops can power 2.6 cars for a year. For comparison, one football pitch full of solar panels could fuel 260 cars!

We also need to have an honest conversation about the future. We’ve learned through experience that biofuels are no “knight on a white horse” that will magically solve all problems. Yet some types of biofuels – for example, some of those based on wastes and residues – are a huge improvement compared to what we have today, and are worth supporting. So, in that sense, targeted support for advanced fuels, as the Commission proposes, is useful.

But we need to be smart and realistic about this. For example, the 3.6% target for advanced biofuels is probably too high and we need much better safeguards to ensure only genuinely sustainable sources qualify as “advanced”.

We also need to acknowledge that the EU’s relationship with biofuels can no longer be exclusive. Volkswagen, Mercedes and BMW are just a few of the carmakers that have announced 15-25% electric car sales in 2025. Renewables are getting cheaper and EU electricity production is getting cleaner. We need a renewable energy directive that supports and accelerates the transition to renewable electricity as the prime source of energy in transport.

If we phase out land-based biofuels, create a supply of genuinely sustainable advanced biofuels and promote electrification we will have made real progress.

Perhaps the love affair between the EU and biofuels won’t be as glamorous or as exclusive as some had once hoped. But it would be a more solid, more sustainable and, ultimately, a more lasting relationship.


jan van houwenhove's picture


Nice article. I do not see a valuable alternative in your article. It is simple to provide negative comments on present situations. Give us a valuable positive alternative.

Auke Hoekstra's picture


I think it is hard to be clearer and more constructive than this article but multiple commenters say things along the lines of this commenter: "I do not see a valuable alternative ... it is simple to provide negative comments".
Did they read the article at all?

First the article states fossil fuels are a better alternative than current biofuels. Sorry if that hurts biofuel lovers feelings but as a researcher in this field I'm afraid I concur and I also feel it is a scandal that this was allowed to happen. Forest, people and the climate got hurt by this negligence.

Secondly the article states very clearly: "If we phase out land-based biofuels, create a supply of genuinely sustainable advanced biofuels and promote electrification we will have made real progress." And because electrification is coupled to unlimited energy sources that do not compete for scarce water and fertile land it is a very "clear and valuable positive alternative".

Andreas Pastowski's picture


The former comment is spot on. I have done studies on the damaging effects of palm oil use for biodiesel. However without a global regime for the protection of rain forests, those will most likely be chopped down for other reasons than biodiesel production. Thus criticizing certain cases of misuse is necessary but not sufficient.
We are currently looking into methanol from renewable power and CO2 as an alternative with some advantages over H2 for certain applications.

Jonas Ericson's picture


Please stop your bashing of sustainable biofuels. Saying no to sustainable biofuels is saying yes to tar sand oil, to deep sea oil, to arctic oil, to fracking, shale oil, to fossil gas, to coal,

EU has abandond 30 Mha cropland only since 1990 and is expected to abandon another 10 Mha cropland until 2030. This abandonment represents the largest threat towards Europe's biodiversity there is. 50 % of the redlisted species are dependent of these farms continuing agricultural practice. It is obvious that these farm cannot compete with the large food producers - especially as there is such a huge surplus of food worldwide and food prices are only 25 % of what they were 50 years ago, so the alternative is abandonment.

This cropland could produce 1200 TWh biofuels, i.e. 1/3 of the current use in transport - and when we've electrified what is possible to electrify, it will be substitute for the remaining oil.

It is clear that EU policies should not push unsustainable clearcuts in Indonesia, but it is equally clear that EU policies definitelly should push for using our own resources to be fossil free, to reduce oil import, to reduce import of unsustainable soy meal from south america, to save our own biodiversity, to maintain our cropland for future needs. Peak phosphorus and less use of fossilbased fertilizers may very well lead to us needing this area once again. Long term abandonment and planting is in practice an irreversible process. This land and this biodiversity will be gone forever.

So I ask you to please be more nuanced.

Jonas Ericson
Biologist and biofuel expert at City of Stockholm

Heike's picture


Strange, that discussions always turn round and round about fossile or plant based energies or electricity.
More than 25 years ago the mobile that runs with air had been produced (France, China) but not entered the world market for lobby reasons. Means, the inventors were threatened to death.
We could have a much nicer discussion soon, if taking away competition from our souls.
If someone asks me for support, I will help. Why should MAN compete? For whom? For God?

Eric Sievers's picture


T&E first stated that biofuels are bad because fuel is produced instead of fuel, i.e. land is used for fuel with a commensurate loss of food. But the facts have never supported that. Not only do EU biofuel plants process animal feed not food, but half of the production of biofuel plants in the EU is protein rich animal feed, thus averting importing Amazonian deforestation in the form of soymeal. All data show that EU ethanol has simply no impact on food price. None.

With the food v fuel argument in shambles, T&E then argued that all biofuels are bad when ILUC is accounted for. But then the science came in on that, in the form of a report, GLOBIOM, that T&E admits is the best available science. And that report is only about the last 5MTOE of biofuels in the EU today, and NOT the first 12MTOE in use today. So T&E brazenly states that "science" supports its incessant recitation of the false fact that all crop diesel is worse than oil; science quite simply does not support that, and T&E refuses to adjust its statements so that they are true. Even though T&E has been confronted with why its statement is, pure and simple, untrue. And Globiom shows that ALL ethanol is fabulous for the climate, another fact T&E finds aesthetically inconvenient (odd for an outfit supposedly driven by science).

So it says that ethanol needs to go because it is 'ineffiicient'. But T&E's starting point was to avoid displacement of food production, Until T&E realised that biofuels don't displace food or "burn food", it was a crime against humanity to use agricultural land for biofuels. But now T&E wants to cover agricultural land in solar panels, meaning its own "solution" is by T&E's own terms much worse than the imagined problem it wants to solve.

You can do better, and you can be more honest, T&E.

Auke Hoekstra's picture


Eric Sievers: "biofuel plants process animal feed, not food" How is that not part of the food chain?
ES: "half of the production of biofuel plants is protein rich animal feed" So half the animal feed is lost?? What argument is now in shambles?

ES: "T&E states all crop diesel is worse than oil ... GLOBIOM shows that ALL ethanol is fabulous for the climate" What I'm reading in the article is that that it freely admits "some types of ethanol save on greenhouse gas emissions" but the article takes the view that a solution that takes 100x more land than solar is problematic in a food and water constrained planet. Seems pretty honest and logical to me.

The way I see it: the average vehicle uses 10x the calories of an average human and the world already has 1 billion vehicles. In what world can we feed 10 billion more humans without an impact on scarce food and nature?

I have met many biofuel enthousiast and they seem honest but that only makes me more confused because for me, no matter how I slice or dice it, it simply does not add up.

James Cogan's picture


Had the ILUC Directive addressed ILUC, as the European Parliament asked it to back in 2009 (when it approved the renewables directive), we'd now have a framework capable of differentiating between safe biofuels made by Europe's farmers without putting pressure on land or food or anything else, and biofuels that do more damage than good.

Some argue that cause-effect ILUC relationships are hard to measure (that they exist is undoubted). But nobody can deny that the ILUC Directive, with its lack of ILUC provisions, now allows nearly four million tons per year of palm oil diesel to enter the system. It should have been called the "Sorry everyone we're not addressing ILUC because we couldn't figure it out so it's just not happening Directive".

It's not too late to wind the clock back, a bit. Releasing the million hectares of EU palm diesel plantation back to other palm using sectors would slow down tropical deforestation for a few years and cut Europe's palm oil consumption by a half (Don't go wild celebrating though. It's like half extinguishing a fire at your house. Growth in palm based cosmetics, processed food, chemicals and all kinds of other stuff all over the world has to stop too).

Solar and wind are the future in transport, but the far distant future: optimistically it'll take forty years for the EU vehicle fleet to include a decent share of electric vehicles powered by a decent share of carbon free electricity. It could take more than forty years. Surely it is demagoguery to point to tomorrow's solar power as a solution for today's fleet of petrol and diesel engine vehicles (like telling me to wait for a better fire engine to come next week to extinguish my house fire) ?

We can use EU crop based biofuels to good effect and safely today: Europe's farmers produce 1.5 billion tons of conventional crops (grains, roots, pulses, vegetables, grass, hay, silage, with the vast majority going to feed meat & dairy livestock), increasing a couple of percent per year on a steadily decreasing land area. Prices are low and there's plenty of scope for more more-with-less by innovation, investment and efficiency. Take just a few percent of the starch, sugar, cellulose and oil from that growing mountain of sustainably produced EU crops and you address the transport decarbonisation problem enough until solar kicks in properly. If you take the time to do the maths yourself you'll find it's true. And it's not an either-or solution. Electrification, lower tailpipe emissions, 2G/3G fuel innovation and EU reforestation can take place too.

2017 is the year to fix Europe's transport renewables legislation. The first thing to do is fix that 3.8% cap because as designed now it could result in double palm oil by 2030 while inhibiting the safe effective conventional European varieties that that really can contribute to climate progress.

James Cogan, Biofuels Analyst
jameskcogan gmail com

Auke Hoekstra's picture


It would be so nice if James Cogan was right. Really. But diverting European foodcrops to biofuels is - as the article correctly states - worse than fossil fuels. I you believe that you can do that without incurring land use change elsewhere you are not being honest to yourself and others. We humans and all the animals we eat have to get there foodcrops from somewhere. Food is a global market and if the EU uses more land for biofuels, countries outside of the EU will have to grow more foodcrops.

And yes, electrification takes time (although by 2020 electric vehicles have a lower TCO in many countries if my research is correct) but it is developing faster than biofuels that improve on fossil fuels (e.g. algea). I feel bad spoiling the party but honesty is important.

Jonas Ericson's picture


This is not correct at all.
There is a surplus of both food and cropland - both in EU and globally. There is no competition between food and fuel.

On the opposite - using EUs surplus cropland for biofuels (currently 30 million hectares, soon 40 million hectares) will
- save the biodiversity dependent on these farms. 50 % of redlisted species are dependent on continued agriculture
- save biodiversity in Brazil and Argentina - as EU-biofuels also render feed as a byproduct and we hence can reduce our import of soymeal
- keep this cropland maintained for future use (with peak phosphorus and stop of using fossilbased fertilizers, we may once again need this land. If it is planted with spruce it is practically impossible to once again cultivate it
- reduce climate impact: ethanol and biogas from crops reduce emissions with more than 90 %
- reduce dependency of Russian oil
- develop rural society

Jeffrey Seisler's picture


T&E finds itself in a conflict of policy advocacy and energy reality when it deals with sustainable biofuels and its drive for electrification of the transport sector. Many European Union policy makers as well as many energy and transportation advocates/NGOs suffer from ‘liquid on the brain’ when it comes to biofuels. In 2003 when the first biogas directive was being considered it took a strong advocacy effort by the European Natural Gas Vehicle Association (ENGVA, today NGVA Europe) to even get biogas/biomethane defined in the legislation as a biofuel, let alone subsidized.

Biogas (the raw product) from waste products to make renewable biomethane (upgraded for transport or pipeline applications) has been proven in the various transportation sector well-to-wheel studies to be far superior to most liquid biofuels from a CO2 reduction perspective. Taken from crop-based or animal (liquid) waste, reductions of CO2 over petroleum fuels in the transportation sector by can be minus 150% or more. This is due to the fact that agricultural waste products otherwise left on the land would eventually, in part, create uncontrolled methane release into the atmosphere.

While it is generally acknowledged that using biomethane as an electric generation fuel will create more CO2 reduction potential than if used collectively in cars, truck and buses, if a focused biomethane infrastructure were developed and applied to the transportation sector in Europe it could replace as much as 20% of the petroleum fuels. CO2 reduction is not the only measure of success for adopting fuel alternatives to petroleum such as renewable methane and fossil-based natural methane, despite long-term criticism of natural gas vehicles (NGVs) by T&E, in particular. The fact is that electrification of the entire transportation network is not feasible and a wider group of alternatives needs to be advocated, especially when considering reductions of other transportation-based pollution from the shipping and rail sectors.

Biogas is 100% sustainable because it comes from a variety of agricultural and human waste products-- garbage. As such biomethane in the transportation sector creates an ‘environmental closed loop’ from source to tailpipe when the garbage is being taken to the bio-digester in a truck fuelled by methane. And the non-phosphate remnants of the anaerobic digestion process can be returned back (or sold) to farmers as an environmental fertilizer.

It is important that policy makers and environmental advocates acknowledge the potential for biogas upgraded to biomethane for use in the transportation sector as one of the important options to reduce CO2 and provide a sustainable alternative to petroleum. Balance of fuels and diversity of technologies ultimately is the pathway to cleaner transportation for the entire planet.

Karl Feilder's picture


While it is critical to ban the import of palm oils for biodiesel usage in Europe - here is my PLEA from the Middle East.

My company converts waste cooking oil into biodiesel right here in Dubai. The waste oil is sourced locally, converted locally, and used locally.

And yet, much of the waste oil from the Middle East is being illogically exported to the European Union. How crazy is that ? Surely someone in the EU could simply BAN the IMPORT of USED COOKING OIL into the EU ? We can and do, source, process, and use our waste oils in our local market - resulting in a very low carbon footprint fuel which is of GLOBAL BENEFIT.

Bringing waste from half way around the world to the EU, when it could be processed and used AT SOURCE into clean, green biofuel is completely and utterly illogical.

John Clarkson's picture


Biofuels won't replace oil and an electrified world is a dream that won't happen. Instead we will turn gas and then coal into oil based fuels. The CO2 from coal to liquid fuels will create huge emissions but people more for these synthetic fuels sparking bouts of hyperinflation globally. Syn gas plants will be built near sources of biomass much later on when coal is uneconomic to mine due to the cost of fuel.

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About the author

William Todts's picture

Executive Director