Europe’s renewable transport targets need biofuels, they can’t be met with EVs alone

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photo Robert Couse-Baker

photo Robert Couse-Baker

The decarbonisation of the transport sector presents a huge challenge for Europe, writes Paul Deane of the Environmental Research Institute in University College Cork, Ireland. Many people believe electric vehicles (EVs) are the answer, but according to Deane biofuels will need to deliver most of the targets for the time being. “EVs will have their day but it may be further down the road than we hoped.”

When we think of renewable transport, we usually think of electric vehicles (EVs); Elon Musk’s Tesla, The LEAF and The Zoe spring to mind, however the reality is that bioenergy is fuelling Europe’s renewable transport ambition. While EVs are gaining market traction in some Member States across Europe, the numbers are still low (although Norway has the largest share of EVs in the world*).

Today liquid biofuels in road transport make the largest contribution to the 10% RES-T target

Around 79,000 electric vehicles[1] were newly registered in the EU in 2014, up by 40 % compared to 2013 with more than 17,200 vehicles in France. Nevertheless, electric vehicles continue to constitute only a very small fraction of new registrations (0.7 %) and Europe’s ambition to achieve 10% renewable energy in transport (RES-T) by 2020 is turning out to be one of the toughest targets to meet. Let’s look at the background and see why:

Environmental concern

The decarbonisation of transport presents a huge challenge for Europe. EU transport is responsible for about one third of final energy consumption (353 Mtoe), 23% of total EU emissions (excluding international maritime) and relies on oil for 94% of its energy needs. Transport also represents a big environmental concern in terms of air pollution. Road transport represented the largest source of NOx emissions in 2013 and one of the main sources of particulate matter PM2.5 emissions. So what are the EU’s plans for RES-T?

Distance to RES-T targets

The policy drivers to enable renewable transport are set out in the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive which sets a binding target of gross final energy consumption from renewable sources for Member States by 2020 but also requires Member States to have at least 10% of their transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020 (weightings are allowed to be applied to certain biofuels, and only biofuels that meet specific sustainability criteria can be included). Today liquid biofuels in road transport make the largest contribution to the 10% RES-T target.

Progress on the 10% RES-T target has been challenging, reaching a 5.7% share in 2014 with a number of Member States expected not to meet their RES-T targets[2] (the map above shows current gaps to target by Member State).

Another part of the challenge that faces EVs is that current internal combustion engines (ICE) are improving in efficiency and, in effect, EV technology has to run fast just to stand still

Part of the reason for the slow progress to the targets is political uncertainty and discussions around the environmental effectiveness of certain biofuel pathways when emissions from indirect land use change are taken into account.  While the production of biofuels originally received strong encouragement from the Commission, current debates at both a European and national level have begun to identify their limitations.

Also, when the 2020 RES-T targets were defined it was assumed that there would be significant developments in the area of second generation biofuels and that these fuels would make a substantial contribution towards the targets, however this has not materialized.

Deliberate cheating

Nevertheless, the role of bioenergy in transport is often overlooked and bioenergy from wastes, residues, and low indirect land use feedstocks (bio-liquids and biogas) will have an important role to play in renewable transport. For example, research from UCC’s (University College Cork) biofuels group shows how 1.1% of grassland in Ireland can allow 10% renewable energy supply in transport[3]. Bioenergy is especially relevant for the areas of transport which are difficult to electrify such as heavy transport, vans, public transport, aviation, and shipping. In all, these modes represented 42% of energy demand in the EU in 2015.

Post 2020 the policy landscape for renewable transport is uncertain

Another part of the challenge that faces EVs is that current internal combustion engines (ICE) are improving in efficiency and, in effect, EV technology has to run fast just to stand still. European CO2 targets for vehicles are 95gCO2/km for cars as of 2021 and 147gCO2/km for vans as of 2020. The average level of emissions of a new car sold in Europe in 2014 was 121.6 gCO2/km[4], outperforming the 2015 target of 130 gCO2/km. This means that for EVs the carbon intensity of the supplied electricity should be less than about 480 g/kWh to achieve direct CO2 emission reductions (over a new ICE car) in 2020.  While recent events such as Volkswagen’s deliberate cheating of the emissions tests has led us to question the reliability of emissions estimates from cars, total emissions from road transport are estimated based on total fuel sold and are therefore robust.

Down the road

Taxation can be used to help displace fossil fuel in transport and encourage renewable fuels. Transport in Europe is predominantly diesel based (54%) and most EU Member States, except the UK, tax diesel at a lower rate than petrol per litre. Given that the energy and carbon content of a litre of diesel is higher, petrol attracts a higher tax per unit of energy or carbon emissions. From a decarbonisation of transport perspective, the lower tax rate on diesel fuel is hard to justify, especially given the higher emissions of carbon and of harmful air pollutants, notably particulate matter and NOx, per litre of fuel used.

EVs are sure to play a big part in the decarbonisation of transport, however costs need to come down and widespread deployment is unlikely in the short to medium term

Post 2020 the policy landscape for renewable transport is uncertain. There will be no binding renewable energy EU targets at Member State level after 2020, however Member States will have binding emissions reduction targets for transport/heat/agriculture in the so called Non-ETS (EU Emission Trading System) sectors, as discussed here.  [Note that EVs move transport emissions from the Non-ETS into the ETS, as they rely on electricity generation, which falls under the ETS].

This will force Member States to have a closer look at emissions in transport but will more than likely encourage a focus on efficiency due to lower marginal abatement costs. The Commission has bounced around the idea of a blending obligation to promote the development of advanced renewable fuels which are not based on food crops[5] and time will tell whether this will be accepted politically.

EVs are sure to play a big part in the decarbonisation of transport, however costs need to come down and widespread deployment (in the absence of very generous subsidies as in Norway) is unlikely in the short to medium term. Modelling by the Commission under the recent EU reference scenario shows electricity in road transport reaching only 1% (of energy in transport) by 2030. EVs will have their day but it may be further down the road than we hoped.

Thanks to Eamonn Mulholland for edits.

Editor’s Note

Paul Deane works at the Environmental Research Institute in University College Cork. He has been involved in the energy industry for 15 years in both commercial and academic research into the transition to low carbon energy systems from a technical, societal and an economic perspective. He is a member of the Insight_E group, a European, scientific and multidisciplinary think-tank for energy which informs the European Commission and other energy stakeholders.

*In 2015, electric vehicles had a 22 % market share in Norway. This is first and foremost due to a substantial package of incentives developed to promote zero emission cars.

[1] According to a JRC study based on EEA data. Includes battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric M1 and N1 vehicles

[2] Pye, S., Deane, P., and Ó Gallachóir, B (2014). Europe’s renewable energy policies: Too much focus on renewable electricity?

[3] Wall, D; O’Kiely, P; Murphy, JD (2013). ‘The potential for biomethane from grass and slurry to satisfy renewable energy targets.’ Bioresource Technology (149) 425-431

[4]European Environment Agency, “Monitoring CO2 emissions from new passenger cars and vans in 2014,” EEA, Luxembourg, 2015.



  1. Pete says

    The author quickly steps over the problems with biofuels. Conventional pollution like fine dust and NOx is the same for biofuels and fossil fuels. The energy return on energy investment for the current generation of biofuels hovers around 1, meaning there is no net benefit for the climate. The author admits that the second generation, which promises better EROEIs has still to materialise. So we can use biofuels to meet targets on paper, but we would be cheating ourselves and our children. It seems there only tow reasons to continue with fossil fuels: An agricultural lobby and mental laziness, since not much imagination is necessary to just change fuels. I say let’s stop wasting our money, agricultural land and infrastructure on pursuing this red herring and leapfrog to the better EV technology.

  2. says

    Looks like we can get some great discussion going on here! Mr. Deane’s piece rightly points out that EVs are not enough to “decarbonize” transport. But he falls into all-to-common trap of assuming that just because they are renewable, biofuels will help reduce CO2 emissions.

    My piece from the very next day – – explains why that assumption breaks down.

    A key thing to keep in mind is that, scientifically speaking, biofuels do not “decarbonize” anything. Whether ethanol from maize, cane or beets, or renewable diesel from oil seeds, biofuels are still chemically carbon-based energy carries. They do not directly reduce how much CO2 flows into the atmosphere from tailpipes or jet exhausts. My piece explains why a lot of well-meaning people have (and continue to) get things wrong regarding the role of biofuels and climate.

    It also points out that the missing link for mitigating transport CO2 sector emissions is reforestation and other measures to speed up the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and sequestered on a net basis. That’s the only way to counterbalance the CO2 that is inevitably emitted when any carbon-based motor fuel is burned.

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