Story | 08/03/2023 08:30:58 | 7 min Read time

Europe needs more advanced biofuels to rapidly reduce transport emissions

Dan Rider

Around 30% of fossil-derived fuels used for transportation in the EU could be replaced with advanced biofuels by 2050.

Globally, transport accounts for about a quarter of CO2 emissions. Heavy duty transport, shipping and aviation will soon require new solutions and need to act rapidly if this sector is to deliver significant emission reductions in the coming decades. While electrification progresses, the legacy fleet of internal combustion engines will outnumber the electric fleet for a long time to come.

“Europe has around 10% total in terms of bio- and e-fuels in the overall energy mix, but we should go higher and faster. Actually, policymakers have used certain concerns to limit the contributions of these fuels, rather than using the concerns to improve the rules. There are new solutions that a market can develop when the rules are clear, and the demand is serious.”

So says Dr Carlo Hamelinck, partner at studio Gear Up, an Amsterdam-based independent consultancy firm. He is an expert in what both corporations and governments can do to mobilise sustainable biomass and how to enlarge the feedstock base for fuels for transport and the wider bioeconomy.

“The total annual use of biofuels in Europe currently is about 17 million tonnes annually and we really need to increase that dramatically. I believe renewable fuels can contribute much more to decarbonisation than the policymakers want at the moment,” he continues.

Electrification and renewable fuels play a key role

In recent years the European Commission has put great emphasis on electric mobility and there will be efforts made to further electrify lighter transport.

“Shipping and aviation - especially - concerns diesel and kerosene type fuels. European legislation requires the greening of fuels also in these segments and eventually they will all ask for more renewable fuels.

At present the European Union basically allows several types of renewable fuels.

“They would like to see less crop-based oil fuels and there will be a big demand for other types of renewable fuels, including advanced biofuels. In addition, the European Commission is asking for a lot of so-called e-fuels, fuels produced from renewable electricity. In essence you turn electricity via hydrogen into liquid fuels for the transport sector.”

According to Hamelinck we need both electrification and renewable fuels - and these could be conventional renewable fuels, or they could be advanced renewable fuels.

UPM is planning a new biorefinery

There are many types of wastes and residues available for use in the production of biofuels. Certain types of waste, like vegetable oils, such as used cooking oil, and animal fats have natural availability limits, which reduces the fuel’s scalability.

UPM’s current sustainable feedstock for biofuels in the UPM Lappeenranta Biorefinery is crude tall oil, which is a residue from pulp production that efficiently supports the circular economy.

In the company's plans to increase production of advanced biofuels, the materials being used for biofuel and bioenergy production are the residues and by-products of the forest industry. The potential construction by UPM of a larger biorefinery in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, is expected to have a maximum annual capacity of 500,000 tonnes of high quality renewable fuels, including sustainable jet fuel, and raw material for the petrochemical sector for example in bioplastic applications.

UPM’s advanced biofuels belong to the most demanding sustainability category of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which includes residues from agricultural and forestry activities. Given the reliance on waste and residues, biomass feedstock availability has often been raised as a justification to minimise the role of biofuels to decarbonise the transport sector.

The UPM Forest Action programme

One third of all fossil fuels for transport can be substituted

But a report based on detailed modelling by Imperial College London Consultants concludes that the potential availability of sustainable biomass, with no harm to biodiversity, could support advanced and waste-based biofuel production in Europe of up to 350 million tonnes per year by 2050. 

There are new solutions that a market can develop when the rules are clear and the demand is serious.
Dr Carlo Hamelinck

The conclusion reinforces an earlier study showing that advanced and waste-based biofuels, together with synthetic fuels and other low ILUC-risk (Indirect Land Use Change) biofuels, can deliver a critical role, complementary to electrification, for the decarbonisation of EU transport in line with the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality objective.

The BIKE journey — working towards climate positive farming and sustainable land use

“If we combine those numbers with the demand for fuels, then we see that about 30% of all the fossil fuels in transport could be replaced with renewable fuels from those residual feedstocks, which is enormous. I think it would quickly lead to at least a quarter less greenhouse gas emissions from transport alone. So, combining advanced biofuels with electrification and other types of renewable fuels could lead to rapid climate action in the transport sector,” Hamelinck notes.

The current transport energy mix

The current EU legislation appears to reflect a relatively modest ambition in terms of its renewable fuels goals. The proposal for the new Directive included a target of only 2.2% for advanced biofuels in the transport energy mix in Europe by 2030. While 2.2% seems modest, it still reflects a considerable growth from today’s production capacity and thus creates significant opportunities for new investments. The most recent negotiations seem to have arrived at a slight increase for the 2030 target.

Hamelinck believes that the market can still improve the sustainability performance of renewable fuels. And so UPM is developing advanced fuels from waste and residues, while also working on newer feedstocks.

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The catalyst for growth?

The critical question now is what needs to happen for advanced biofuel production to start to grow more rapidly from 2023 onwards?

To that end, it is the current view of Hamelinck that while there will be a significant demand for advanced biofuels, this still remains a policy-led demand. In future legislation it is likely that there will be significant sub-targets, and this will translate to several millions of tonnes of advanced biofuels. If the demand is significant and consistent for a longer period of time, and if all players are certain that the feedstock being used is not going to be disputed in the Union for the coming decades, then it will provide enough certainty for market players to boost their investments.

“I expect a lot from wood-based feedstocks such as forest harvesting residues, chips and sawdust. They allow the production of multiple types of fuels, but also of chemicals. This would basically open up a kind of a new feedstock platform that could deliver to both fuels and materials and chemicals,” concludes Hamelinck.

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