T&E is working to reverse EU policy that increased demand for food-based biofuels in transport – driving deforestation and releasing carbon emissions.

What's happening?

Adopted in 2009, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) promotes the use of biofuels and other alternative fuels by setting a national target for the use of renewable energy in the transport sector – 10% of the energy consumed in transport must come from renewable sources by 2020. On the other hand, the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) sets a carbon intensity reduction target of 6% on each fuel supplier in 2020. This drove a rapid uptake of biofuels, mainly from food crops.

The increased demand for food-based biofuels leads to an increased use of agricultural land for energy. Since most agricultural land is already being used to produce food for people, new areas have to be found to meet the ever-increasing demand for food and animal feed. This leads to deforestation and draining of rich ecosystems, releasing tonnes of greenhouse gases. These emissions (resulting from what is known as indirect land-use change, or ILUC) are not taken into account by the EU biofuels policy. In some cases, these ILUC emissions are so high that some biofuels lead to higher GHG emissions than the fossil fuel they replace, when taking into account the whole life-cycle emissions. This is the case for biodiesel made from vegetable oils (rapeseed, palm oil, soy and sunflower).

Currently, around 80% of the EU biofuels market is made of biodiesel, mainly produced from vegetable oils, and 20% consists of bioethanol. In addition, EU drivers are the top consumers of palm oil – more than half of all EU imports of palm oil end up in EU’s cars and trucks. 

In an attempt to tackle the ILUC issue, EU legislators adopted a 7% limit on the amount of food-based biofuels that can be counted to achieve the 10% target for renewables in transport. Also, reporting of ILUC emissions is mandatory, but “ILUC factors” are still not included in the sustainability criteria. This omission means that the most damaging biofuels are still allowed to count towards the 2020 renewable targets and therefore receive support. Ultimately, the final version of the EU reform sets an indicative 0.5% target for so-called second-generation biofuels.

Gradual phase-out

The Commission has signalled on several occasions its intention to gradually phase-out support – both policy and financial – for food-based biofuels. This has been communicated both in its 2014 communication on the 2030 climate and energy framework and also in the European strategy for low-emission mobility – released in July 2016.

Finally, in November 2016, the European Commission published a proposal for a recast of the Renewable Energy Directive, known as RED II, for the period 2021 to 2030. This proposal has been amended by the European Parliament and the Council, leading to the adoption of a final text in June 2018. The final deal removes the EU driver for crop-based biofuels and focuses the EU support on advanced fuels, such as advanced biofuels and renewable electricity. The support to palm oil, identified as a high emitting biofuels, will also end in 2030, although exemptions remain.

Key statistics

Biofuels and the Renewable Energy Directive (REDI and REDII)

EU member states are required to source 10% of transport energy from renewable sources, mainly biofuels, by 2020. Following the ILUC reform, only 7% of this target can be land-based biofuels.

The EU has adopted a new RED for the period 2021 to 2030. Countries are no longer forced to use crop biofuels to meet high EU targets. There is a dedicated target for the use of advanced fuels such as renewable electricity in transport and advanced biofuels made from wastes and residues. Recently, the EU adopted a delegated act which labels palm oil diesel as unsustainable, meaning that this biofuel will no longer be counted as a green fuel to meet the EU’s 2030 renewable targets, although exemptions remain.

What is ILUC (indirect land-use change)?

The RED has generated greater demand for biofuels and therefore for agricultural land. Carbon stores such as forests and peatlands are converted to crop fields, which results in a loss of biodiversity and increases in greenhouse gas emissions as sequestered carbon is liberated. These indirect emissions are currently not accounted for when biofuels are considered for the RED.

How much land will be converted?

According to the Globiom study land expansion leads to 6.7 million hectares of land conversion globally when assuming a 7% cap for food-based biofuels.

Extra emissions due to ILUC

952 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent between 2011-2020, bigger than EU GHG emissions from domestic transport in 2014.

Palm oil in biodiesel

The amount of palm oil used in biodiesel has increased significantly in recent years. Cars and trucks now burn more than half of all the palm oil imported in Europe.

Food-based biofuels: cure worse than the disease

Food-based biofuels: cure worse than the disease