Biofuels

A cure worse than the disease.

19 mnBottles of vegetable oil Europe burns in its cars every day

15 mnLoaves of bread Europe burns every day in its cars

80%European used cooking oil imported from abroad

What’s happening?

Produced from biomass materials, such as crops or residues of different processes, biofuels have been widely promoted across the European Union since the adoption of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) in 2009. Vast swathes of existing and new farmland is given over to the production of crops to be burned. More than half of the rapeseed and palm oil used in the EU is burned in cars and trucks. Rather than reducing the climate impact of transport fuels, analysis by T&E shows that biofuels policies increase the EU’s reliance on unsustainable feedstocks that actually increase the emissions, such as palm and soy, because of their indirect land use change impacts. In 2018, the revised version of the RED attempted to reduce the share of biofuels with indirect land use change risks and announced a phase-out of palm biofuels by 2030. However it still allowing soy and other unsustainable crops.

In spring 2023, the European Parliament and the Council agreed to increase the EU’s RED target to 29% of renewables in transport by 2030. While this new version of the RED promotes for the first time the use of renewable electricity and Renewable Fuels from Non Biological Origin (RFNBOs), the increased overall transport target will likely in practice drive additional demand for biofuels.

Starting with the worst biofuels

Biofuels failed to make Europe energy independent. The vast majority of the growth in biodiesel since 2009 came from imported feedstocks such as palm and soy oil. EU policymakers have identified both as high deforestation risk (ILUC). For this reason, palm is set to be phased out of the EU’s biofuel mix. The Commission continues to delay a similar decision on soy.

But what about rapeseed, sunflower, wheat or corn?

Food security

Biofuels are not simply a climate problem. Burning food is also a very bad idea. Europe burns 19 million bottles of vegetable oil and 10,000 tonnes of wheat – enough for 15 million loaves of bread – every day in its cars. This puts pressure on global food prices, threatening food security.

Missed opportunity

Europe currently wastes land the size of Ireland on crops for biofuels which are an obstacle to tackling climate change and food security. This land could be used to feed 120 million people or, if given back to nature, could absorb twice as much CO2 as is supposedly saved by powering cars with biofuels. Using an area equivalent to just 2.5% of this land for solar panels would produce the same amount of energy.

What about waste biofuels

Europe pioneered the use of biofuels a decade ago as ‘renewable’ alternatives to fossil fuels. The consequences have been largely disastrous. Europe is gradually ditching palm oil in favour of other crops and so-called ‘waste’ feedstocks like used cooking oil (UCO) and animal fats. Unfortunately these wastes are limited meaning Europe is increasingly reliant on unreliable imports. For example, consumption of UCO biofuels more than doubled between 2015 and 2022. But Europe’s ability to collect waste oil is being outpaced by demand. The continent is now reliant on imports from Asia for 80% of its UCO. Animal fats are similarly limited increasing the risks of fraud.