Yes We Can! (Meet the EU advanced biofuels target, that is)
One of the environmentally positive outcomes of the EU’s ILUC Directive was the requirement for Member States to set national targets for advanced biofuels made from non-food feedstocks including wastes, residues, energy crops, and algae. These feedstocks, as long as they are sustainably produced and harvested, can be made into advanced biofuels with a very low carbon footprint compared to fossil fuels. The ILUC Directive set the default target level at 0.5% blending of advanced biofuels by 2020, but Member States can set a lower target by citing one of these reasons:
- Limited potential for the sustainable production of biofuels from eligible feedstocks, or the limited availability of cost-effective advanced biofuels
- Technical or climatic characteristics of the fuel market, such as the composition of the vehicle fleet
- Allocating a country’s resources to incentivizing energy efficiency and electrification instead of advanced biofuels
Italy has already set a higher national target for advanced biofuels than required by the ILUC Directive – 0.6% blending by 2018 and 1% blending by 2022 – and we’re hoping other Member States follow suit. Being realistic, though, some Member States are likely to use the above reasons to set a lower target, or even none at all (although promoting vehicle efficiency and electrification would meet broadly the same environmental aims as advanced biofuels). To get out in front of some of these pretexts, we dug into the first point on the sustainable potential of advanced biofuel feedstocks in a paper that recently has been published in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy.
In this study, we assessed the sustainable potential of some of these feedstocks in each individual Member State at present, in 2020, and in 2030, and compared the amount of biofuel that could be produced from this resource with that required to meet a 0.5% blending target. We focused on the amount of agricultural residues, forestry residues, and wastes that could be collected without negative impacts on the environment or on existing uses of these materials. There is also potential for feedstock production from land-based energy crops, but because this pathway carries additional sustainability risks, we chose to focus on lower-risk feedstocks in this assessment. For agricultural and forestry residues, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t encourage overharvesting that could lead to greater soil erosion and nutrient and carbon loss, so we modeled the amounts that should be left on the soil surface on average in each country. We collected data on how much of each resource is used by other industries, including straw used for animal feed and bedding as well as wastes and residues already used for energy generation in combustion or biogas plants. We also excluded wastes that are already composted or recycled, and assumed recycling would increase in the future in line with other EU priorities.
We found that most Member States have far more sustainable waste and residues available than would be necessary to produce enough advanced biofuel for the 0.5% target, as shown in the figure. Over half of the Member States have more than 10 times the amount of feedstock needed (shown as more than 1,000% of the target in the figure). We did find that there are some Member States that don’t produce enough wastes and residues domestically to meet the target, and this is true mainly for small Member States, such as Luxembourg and Slovenia, that have some resource, but not enough to power an entire biofuel plant on their own. Notably, Denmark does not appear to have any sustainably available wastes or residues, despite being a large agricultural state that produces copious amounts of straw – it turns out they already combust all the sustainably available straw for heat and power. Denmark, as well as the smaller Member States, could import feedstock or advanced biofuel to meet the 0.5% target. For the EU as a whole, there is plenty of sustainable feedstock to go around.
The main message from this study is that most Member States can’t cite the explanation that they don’t have enough sustainably available feedstock to get out of their obligation to meet the 0.5% target. We’re hoping this will encourage more countries to try to and meet the target. The real hurdle that remains is commercializing the cellulosic biofuel industry and encouraging investment in what is still seen as a high-risk venture. With the right kind of policy support, we believe this can be done. Matching strong incentives for the cellulosic industry with rules for the sustainable production and harvest of feedstocks could usher in a new era of very low carbon renewable fuels that help us meet our climate goals.