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  • EV Charging Infrastructure
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Biofuels Can Still Play a Part in Decarbonizing the Transportation Sector

Serkan Birgel
Jan 27, 2022

GHI Blog

On August 5, 2021, President Joe Biden tweeted, “The future of the auto industry is electric. There’s no turning back.” An executive order that targets 50% EV sales share in the US market by 2030 was announced the same day. In the biofuel industry, news of the Biden administration’s executive order was received as the end of bioethanol’s prospects in the US automotive transport sector. In May 2021, Valérie Corre of Europe’s ePURE asserted, “The electric vehicle is not the future—it’s part of the future, just like bioethanol and hydrogen.” At the same time, the European Union farmers and cooperatives association Copa and Cogeca challenged a 7% cap for crop-based biofuels introduced by the European Commission (EC) in 2015. Biofuels remain part of the alternative transport fuels picture, as encapsulated in the EC’s revised Fit for 55 proposal. 

The rationale that EVs are in a zero-sum competition with biofuels and hydrogen often propels debate where anything short of full commitment to a technology can generate passionate disagreement. For some observers, biofuels are an interim solution at best amid inevitable automotive fleet electrification. As such, a major characteristic of the debate revolves around timescales. Others argue for diversification to avoid risks associated with dependency on any single technology or fuel. Recently, the UK introduced E10 as the new standard (95 octane) petrol grade containing 10% renewable ethanol, up from the previous 5% standard. Therefore, biofuels can play a decarbonizing role here and now, but what about any medium- and long-term applications for biofuels?

The Stage Is Set for EV Growth

At the 10 million mark after a decade of rapid growth, global EV stock represented only 1% of the total global vehicle stock in 2020. However, EV adoption is set to soar as governments around the world increasingly target electrification of the transport sector, which (including road and shipping) accounted for 20.6% of global CO2 emissions in 2019. Surface transport, the power sector (electricity and heat production at 44.3%), and industry (at 22.4%) were the top three CO2-emitting sectors of 2019. 

The US Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has also earmarked billions of dollars in funding to develop a national charging network and advance a North American battery supply chain. Automakers around the world have announced big EV commitments. In tandem, numerous new petrol and diesel vehicle sales bans have been scheduled. The UK plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. Also, in July 2021, the EU proposed an effective ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035 on. Numerous member states have introduced their own national bans.

Hard-to-Abate Sectors and Technological Developments

Potential for biofuels is usually identified beyond the automotive sector, where particularly advanced biofuels from non-crop feedstock can have a significant and complementary role to play in decarbonizing shipping and aviation. These sectors cannot be electrified soon enough if urgent climate targets are to be met. For example, the Netherlands plans to promote biofuels and synthetic kerosene as part of efforts to have European airlines flying entirely on sustainable fuel by 2050. The increased costs of advanced biofuels, which can limit the deployment of advanced biofuels at a meaningful scale, need to be addressed. At this stage, the long-term outlook depends on establishing clear and supportive policies, inducing demand in target industries, and addressing cost and potential feedstock supply chain issues.