What’s the problem?

The EU’s transport fuels policies have failed to support the cleanest alternatives to decarbonise transport, mainly because they have not accounted for the emissions associated with clearing land to grow crops for biofuels. In many cases, the cure has been worse than the disease.

The 2009 RED set a target for renewables in transport for the year 2020. Due to the lack of proper sustainability criteria and emissions accounting, this target has driven up the use of food based biofuels such as palm oil and wheat, leading to expansion of croplands at the expense of high carbon stock areas such as tropical forests and peatlands. For example, every day Europe burns the equivalent of 15 million loaves of bread in its cars.

Ten years and two policy reforms later (the “ILUC reform” and the REDII), there is some progress. It is far from perfect though. The use of food and feed based biofuels is limited in Europe and palm oil biodiesel will not count towards the EU renewable targets for 2030. And there is a tendency to focus the support exclusively on advanced fuels, including advanced biofuels, renewable electricity and renewable hydrogen and synthetic fuels.

However, the use of crop-based biofuels is still allowed and predominant in Europe. The phase-out of palm oil arrives too late and fails to tackle other unsustainable biofuel feedstocks such as soy and rapeseed oil. 

What is needed to fix the biofuels rules?  

With the European Green Deal, the EU has increased its climate ambition and committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. This has triggered the reform of many energy and climate laws, including the Renewable Energy Directive. This review will take place in 2020 and presents an opportunity to improve the rules for biofuels, focusing on: 

  • The further limitation and phase-out of crop-based biofuels by 2030.
  • The earlier phase-out in 2021 of high deforestation risk biofuels, including palm and soy and their by-products. 
  • The phase-out of vegetable oil biodiesel by 2025. 
  • Improvements in the sustainability framework for advanced biofuels to ensure that only true waste products can be used for biofuels and that they can be sourced in sustainable quantities.

What is at stake?

Continued support for food and feed biofuels will perpetuate the negative impacts linked to cropland expansion: deforestation, destruction of biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, damages to soil and water quality, impacts on local communities, etc. 

When taking into account the deforestation impacts, the emissions associated with some crop biofuels are, according to the Globiom study, higher than the fossil fuels they are replacing. The EU is therefore supporting a fake solution, making the cure worse than the disease. 

The EU fuels framework needs to be fit for the long-term decarbonisation of transport and the rapid shift to zero-emissions transport, through direct electrification and use of renewable hydrogen and synthetic fuels in sectors where direct electrification is not possible.