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.  Note 1.

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.  Note 2.

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.  Note 3.

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.


Note 1. “Moving ahead: The world without food-based biofuels,” Transport & Environment

Note 2.  “Biofuels: handle with care,” Transport & Environment (11 Nov  2009).

Note 3. “Fixing Europe’s clean fuels policy,” Transport & Environment (9 Mar 2017).


The author, William Todts, is the Executive Director of T&E, steering the organisation to promote, at EU and global level, policy that ensures cleaner, safer, smarter transport.   He joined the organisation in 2011. As climate and freight director, William has led the campaign to regulate CO2 emissions from trucks in Europe for the first time. He also campaigned successfully to get cleaner and safer trucks on European roads as well as for the 95 gramme CO2 emissions target that new cars must achieve by 2021.

A Belgian native, William started his career in Brussels working for a MEP, after which he joined Belgium’s EU presidency team to help negotiate the first CO2 standards for vans. In his spare time he is a ‘cyclo-path’ for two-wheeled transport and at weekends can be found cycling one of the city’s ‘green ways’. A history graduate, William also enjoys reading about classical antiquity especially Rome.

Originally published in Transport & Environment (6 APRIL 2017).


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