We Need to Decarbonize Now. Biofuels Can Help Us Get There.

01.08.21 | Blog | By:

Milton Friedman once professed that legislative action invariably reflects the public opinion of twenty to thirty years earlier. With transport in the EU being challenged to dramatically reduce its GHG emissions by 2030, and the EU Commission aggressively regulating in this direction, maybe we should probe the public opinion about its expectations regarding travel.  Freedom to go and visit friends and family, to travel to your holiday resort or escape for the week-end: most of those activities are done by car, the cheapest transport for a family. What is clear: Freedom matters.

Except in large cities, where the public transport grid is usually dense and reasonably efficient, most citizens, living in low-density towns and non-urban areas, the vast majority of us in most Western World countries, will prefer to use their car for the comfortable 30 minute ride to work than spending one hour and a half squeezed in a bus, infrequent and operating on a limited network such as experienced, for example, by the 100,000 inhabitants of Limoges, a typical mid-size city in France. What is clear: Time (and comfort) is of the essence.

Over the last forty years, Western citizens living on our globalized planet expect goods and services to become cheaper, and any attempt to change what is perceived as a deserved way of life today has faced a kind of Yellow Vest’s upsurge, in various formats, according to local lore. What is clear: Money matters.

With the relentless rise of inequality in the last forty years, pushing more of the middle class towards ever-lower incomes, aggravated in 2020 by the pandemic which may still last for some time, end-of-month considerations will continue to prevail over end-of-the-world worries. We observe in 2020 lower sales of new cars, with two possible consequences:

  • Either the postponement of the replacement of the existing car: the average car age will increase, thus directionally increasing the average GHG emission from road transport, light-duty vehicles (LDVs) accounting for more than half of the energy use thereof,
  • Or, the decision to purchase a second-hand car, with the same consequence on GHG emissions, also implying the traditional second- or third-hand car market outlets, such as Africa for the EU or Latin America for the U.S., will be supplied by these vehicles even further in the future.

Add to this directionally lower fossil energy prices, as economic recovery does take time, making private LDV driving even more affordable.

The upshot is that internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) will not disappear overnight in the Western World, even though a 2050 zero net carbon vision supports the concept of the ban of this technology from new sales as from 2035, to give time to car pools to be fully stocked by zero emission vehicles, like EVs.

The steady interest for EVs will not stop, as public support remains, from regulations mandating increased technical efficiency of vehicles or the development of low and zero emission zones in urban areas, but it is likely to wane for some time, making electrification of road transport an even more remote silver bullet to reduce the carbon footprint of transport, at least for the two decades ahead of us.

The carbon budget we live on does not allow us to procrastinate for another two decades and let fossil energy use in transport, and its associated GHG emissions, keep on increasing at a steady pace, even in climate-conscious EU. We need a transition solution to reduce the carbon footprint of transport that is compatible with society expectations.

This solution has been tested for more than a decade: biofuels.

Biofuels have had their ups and downs. First generation biofuels have been criticized as directly and indirectly increasing deforestation, which cannot be disputed for a part of palm and soy oil productions, though is more difficult to believe for corn or rapeseed production in the Northern Hemisphere. First generation biofuels have a rightful role to play in decarbonization especially with science-based sustainability criteria that require the demonstration of the reductions in GHG emissions across the full lifecycle and prevention of unintended negative consequences. The raw materials they depend on have a rightful place in the “6Fs” expected from biomass, food, feed, fuel, fiber, fertilization and forestry.

And advanced biofuels, produced from waste and residues, in the spirit of a growing circular economy, in the future also possibly from algae or captured CO2, can complement first generation biofuels, as technologies have come of age and only need a stable, predictable, regulatory framework for investors to be convinced that their deployment carries a strong business case.

Sure, biofuels cost more to produce than fossil fuels, the price of the latter not carrying the financial impact of all its negative externalities, such as climate change. Public money is heavily invested in EV, like in subsidies to make the purchase price more competitive or in recharging infrastructure. This support is legitimate, necessary, to make sure electrification of road transport plays its expected role in the 2050 zero net carbon ambition, in thirty years from now. The Recovery, Resilience and EU Green Deal programs should also be able to support biofuels as an affordable transition solution for road transport carbon footprint reduction in the carbon budget, most particularly in helping low-income citizens who will rely in the foreseeable future on ICEV for their mobility.

Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP) and recently retired from TOTAL where he served as Senior Biofuels Expert.

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