Decarbonising transport: This is the time to get it right

MEPs will soon vote on several important provisions that could determine whether biofuels can make the needed contribution to decarbonising transport, explains Géraldine Kutas.

Decarbonisation of transport: This is the time to get it right | Photo credit: UNICA

By Géraldine Kutas

09 Jan 2018

The European Parliament will soon vote on the recast of the renewables directive (RED II), one of the key elements of the clean energy package. RED II is critical in ensuring that we harness the potential of renewable energy effectively, and in decarbonising the economy while keeping energy affordable.  

Transport accounts for about 25 per cent of total EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), transport, together with refrigeration and air-conditioning, are the only sectors whose emissions have increased over the last 25 years. Therefore, RED II must set the course for a much faster decarbonisation of transport to have a realistic chance of reaching the EU’s climate targets. 


One of the most effective solutions available today to decrease carbon emissions in transport is the use of sustainable biofuels. In Brazil, the use of bioethanol in flex-fuel vehicles has led to a decrease of 370 million tonnes in carbon emissions in just 13 years - the equivalent of carbon absorption of 2.5 billion trees over 20 years. In fact, Paolo Frankl, the Head of the Renewables Division of the International Energy Agency (IEA), agrees that we need biofuels to decarbonise transport.

Therefore, MEPs will soon vote on several important provisions that could determine whether biofuels can make the needed contribution to the decarbonisation of transport. 

First, a renewables target in transport – decarbonising transport is a critical challenge, therefore a mandatory renewables target in this sector is needed. 

Compared with the Commission proposal, the fact that member states and the European Parliament have included such a target demonstrates progress. While a 20 per cent target would be best and in support of the overall decarbonisation objectives, 15 per cent appears to be a realistic compromise (especially since the Council agreed on a 14 per cent target and the European Parliament only on 12 per cent). 

Second, continuing the current cap on crop-based biofuels: To ensure a sustainable future for biofuels, it will be vital to maintain the seven per cent cap on conventional biofuels, of which some have high GHG savings and a low indirect land use change (ILUC) factor. 

The seven per cent cap was agreed two years ago after very lengthy and detailed discussions.  Reducing this cap would not only diminish the sector in Europe but also any prospect of producing advanced biofuels, which are often dependent on the same companies and feedstocks. In addition, for investors, it would be another sure signal that Europe is not a reliable destination for investments. 

Third, maintaining feedstocks for advanced biofuels (annex IX): The feedstocks for advanced biofuels were agreed and based on scientific assessments and after lengthy discussions in 2015. Therefore, this annex should not be reviewed and amended. 

Lastly, inclusion of ILUC into GHG emission calculation: ILUC can only be calculated through economic models (it cannot be observed) and the calculations are extremely sensitive to underlying (and often differing) assumptions. Therefore, results vary considerably. In fact, this has been acknowledged by the authors of the GLOBIOM study as well as by a recent literature review for the European Commission.

Consequently, given that ILUC is an evolving science, if we are going to include ILUC factors, EU legislation must be able to deal with changes, new findings and an inherent uncertainty, in a fully transparent way. 

In order to deal with ILUC, new EU rules must include periodic updates of the underlying numbers, clearly describe the methodology (type of model, hypothesis and data source) and submit it to public consultation. 

It must also be made public who will be in charge of reviewing these numbers. ILUC estimates have far-reaching consequences on the whole sector. Therefore, it should be fully in line with EU regulatory standards and not be an arbitrary and opaque process that adds to the already existing uncertainty.   

At COP23, there was a strong consensus that we need every sustainable solution available if we want to have a realistic chance of reaching our climate targets. The European Parliament needs to make sure that we harness solutions that can tackle climate change in the short-term. Sustainable bioenergy, particularly sugarcane ethanol, is one of those options. 

I am counting on MEPs to make the right choice.  


Read the most recent articles written by Géraldine Kutas - Biofuels in the renewable energy directive: The last call