Societal Benefits of Biofuels in Europe

Overview

In recent years, much media coverage of the biofuels industry in Europe has focused on the environmental impacts of some types of biofuels. Media coverage is often driven by vigorous campaigns by groups who are broadly against the use of biomass feedstocks (particularly crops) to produce transport fuels. Subsequent public concerns have led politicians and administrators at EU and national level to change their biofuels policies. While a debate on sustainability issues is necessary as production and use of biofuels expands globally, it needs to be informed by reliable scientific data, and take into account the many benefits offered by sustainable biofuels production.

Rather than viewing production of food, bioenergy and non-food bioproducts as competing activities, it is more benefiical (in terms of technolology, land use and economics) to develop synergies between these sectors in a balanced and integrated bioeconomy. Taking this holistic approach to sustainable production of renewable transport fuels offers a range of benefits to European society:

Reduction of European dependency on fossil fuel imports

The EC communication on European Energy Security Strategy COM(2014) 330 final, published in May 2014, highlights the need to reduce reliance on fuel imports to the EU. The European Union is strongly dependent on fossil fuels for its transport needs and is a net importer of crude oil. At the same time, concerns are increasing about climate change and the potential economic and political impact of peak oil production. In addition, there is a geopolitical threat to energy supplies and fuel price stability due to conflicts in the Middle East, and more recently the eastern borders of Europe. To reduce dependency on fossil fuels imports, meet 2020 targets for renewable energy sources in transport, and radically cut GHG emissions, the EU has adopted measures to encourage the production and use of sustainable biofuels.

Although European energy security now and in the future is the single biggest driver for biofuels production, biofuels offer many other benefits to society, ranging from GHG reduction and improvement in air quality, to job and wealth creation, rural development and fuel price stability.

Fuel Price Stability

Reducing dependence on imports of fossils fuels, and deriving fuel from diverse biomass feedstocks, has helped to stabilise the costs of transport fuels in Europe. Studies suggest that the wider availability of biofuels in European fuel markets can protect consumers from severe fluctuations in crude oil price. See: Biodiesel as a motor fuel price stabilization mechanism (PDF).

Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In the very simplest terms, biofuels are produced from plants that remove carbon dioxide from the air when they grow and return it to the air when they are combusted. So there is no net increase in atmospheric carbon. This is in contrast to fossil fuels that use carbon sources that have been stored in the ground for millions of years, and have been released into the atmosphere in vast quantities, mainly in the last century. The resultant increase in atmospheric carbon has led to 'man-made' climate change (although it should be remembered that the earth's climate is dynamic and is affected by a number of other natural phenomenon e.g cyclic solar activity).

Substituting fossil fuels with biofuels has clearly been shown to reduce man-made Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. However, the comparison between GHG emissions of fossil fuels and biofuels is not staightforward. For example, the energy required to produce, fertilise and transport feedstocks and then convert them into liquid fuels also has to be taken into account. Common methods (see BioGrace) have been developed to harmonise calculations of greenhouse gas emissions from bioenergy in Europe and determine the "GHG balance" of producing different biofuels from different feedstocks.

A report published in November 2014 Greenhouse gas impact of marginal fossil fuel use (PDF), suggested that the GHG reduction benefits of biofuels may be under-estimated by 50% as they are calculated using an average fossil fuel comparator rather than figures for production of marginal fossil fuels (which require much greater energy inputs). The report was produced by Ecofys on behalf of the European Oilseed Alliance (EOA), the European Biodiesel Board (EBB) and the European Vegetable Oil and Proteinmeal Industry (FEDIOL).

Globally, there are concerns that clearing of forestry to plant energy crops releases the carbon stored in plants and the soil, increasing GHG emissions. However, biofuels only account for a small proportion of global deforestation - underlying poverty, subsistence farming, logging, cattle ranching and commercial food production are major causes. See NASA overview on causes of deforestation. However there have been specific concerns, for example, over palm oil production for biofuels in parts of Asia.

To address this, biofuels certification schemes have been introduced in the EU, to ensure that biofuels are derived from sustainable feedstocks. However, these are at different stages of implementation in various Member States.

Taking into account the 'energy balances' and the challenges faced with sustainable feedstock production, biofuels already help reduce production of millions of tonnes of GHG by transport in Europe each year. Improvements in sustainability, production efficiency and use of advanced biofuels will continue to improve GHG reduction levels. And with a supportive regulatory framework, the benefits can be achieved even faster!

Jobs, wealth creation and rural development in Europe and globally

The production of biomass feedstocks and their conversion to heat and power, transport fuels and bioproducts, creates new opportunities for:

  • farmers and forestry workers who are able to diversify into energy crop production and/or processing of agroforestry wastes;
  • engineers and construction workers who build and opeate advanced biofuels biorefineries;
  • companies who market and distribute biofuels;
  • research companies who develop and licence innovation process technologies;
  • thousands of people in support industries who benefit from the wealth that biomass, bioenergy and biofuels production generates in rural communities;

See Renewable ethanol: driving jobs, growth and innovation throughout Europe: State of the Industry Report 2014 published by ePure in June 2014.

In the United States, the economic output of the 'renewable fuels industry' is estimated at $184 billion. It supports over 852,000 jobs and $56 billion in wages and generates about $14.5 billion in local and state tax revenue every year [Source: National Corn Growers Association, April 2014].

Developing countries can also potentially benefit from sustainable development of bioenergy feedstocks and biofuels. The challenges and opportunities are outlined in reports such as Sustainable Biomass Production and Use - Lessons Learned from the Netherlands Programe on Sustainable Biomass (NPSB) 2009-2013, Netherlands Enterprise Agency.

Conversion of wastes from food, forestry, agriculture and other bioindustry to fuels

Bioindustrial activity - production of food, feed, forestry products and other bioproducts - creates millions of tonnes of waste (solid, liquid and gaseous) that previously had to be disposed of and were potential pollutants. The move towards biorefineries, which use all parts of a feedstock in cascading processes, has helped to replace products and energy derived from fossil fuels, and create valuable 'low-carbon' fuels for heat and power and transport.

Reduction of tailpipe pollution from vehicle transport

Various studies have shown that diesel produced from biomass produces less pollutants in exh aust gases than fossil diesel. See the TNO report Impact of biofuels on air pollutant emissions from road vehicles. The use of ethanol blends has helped enable the removal of lead and other carcinogens from gasoline, with significant benefits to public health.

Reduction of military dependence on imported fossil fuels

Much pioneering activity in advanced biofuels development has been carried out by the military, to ensure future supplies of transport fuels that are not dependent on fossil imports. A country cannot be defended without reliable fuel supplies. In a volatile and rapidly changing world, where remaining fossil sources are concentrated in areas of political instability, feedstock diversity is an increasingly important strategic issue for national security.