EU’s 2035 ban on new thermal cars won’t spell the end of biofuels, industry says

Critics say position adopted by the European Parliament for zero tailpipe emissions by 2035 is effectively a mandate for electric vehicles, locking out biofuels. When the European Parliament earlier this month passed its version of legislation for car fleet CO2 targets for 2035, it was widely described as a ban on the combustion engine. In fact, it is a required reduction of emissions by 100% for all new vehicles put on the market - which effectively rules out new petrol and diesel cars from that date.

The auto industry has decried the Parliament's position, which must still be reconciled with the position of member states, as unworkable. The biofuels sector is also concerned. Without combustion engines designed for petrol and diesel, the idea that biofuels can eventually be slotted in to replace them comes under threat.

Several lawmakers are also concerned about this, saying it breaks the EU's mantra of keeping a technology neutral approach to regulation. "I voted against the 100% target, I voted in favour of 90%," centre-right Finnish MEP Henna Virkkunen, a member of the parliament's industry and transport committees, told a EURACTIV event last week. "I wanted to leave room for other fuels - not only for hydrogen and electric.

I think there's still a need for biogas and renewable fuels. But as we know, the majority supported 100%. According to Virkkunen, "this is still a question of technology neutrality.

It's missing often when we speak about transport issues."

Lifecycle emissions

The Parliament's position matched the European Commission's original proposal. But the idea of a 100% emissions reduction faces a rough ride in the Council, where transport ministers from the EU's 27 national governments are less convinced that a full phase-out of the combustion engine is possible by 2035. Speaking at the event, Bernd Kuepker, a policy officer in the European Commission's energy department, said it is logical that the focus should be on electric mobility.

"We know that we have a limited amount of resources, and we need to decide where to put them," he said. "Fuels based on molecules will be difficult to produce, so we should only use them in those sectors where other alternatives are not so easily available, like aviation, shipping or industry." "Therefore, we have high hopes that electrification for passenger cars will be a rather easy solution, the dominant solution, because the electric engine has a very high efficiency and can contribute to the overall energy system as a whole since the batteries can also be used for demand response," Kuepker said. So would a 100% emissions reduction target for cars by 2035 spell the end of biofuel for cars?

"No, I don't think that's the end of biofuels," said Valerie Corre, European Director for Regulatory Affairs at French bioethanol producer Tereos. "Today as we speak most people buy internal combustion engines or hybrids," she remarked. Considering that the average lifetime of a car is ten to twelve years, "this brings us to 2035 at best," she added.

If as of that date only electric vehicles are allowed for sale in Europe and there aren't enough charging points, "then what is this consumer going to do?" Corre asked. "He's going to keep his car as much as possible". According to Corre, this means the actual end of thermal engine vehicles in Europe will rather happen around 2040 or later. "When we get there we perhaps change the course of things.

So it's not the end of bioethanol." However, Corre said the legislation would unfairly penalise biofuels because doesn't take the full lifecycle analysis of electric vehicles into account - where emissions are produced during the manufacturing of the vehicle, the production of the battery and the generation of the electricity. "A number of stakeholders have requested that the 100%, or the 90%, be calculated on a fair basis - meaning a full lifecycle analysis," Corre said. "If we say an electric car is zero emissions just because you measure emissions at the tailpipe, and you ignore completely all the upstream emissions, this is not fair.

This is wrong." Once the full lifecycle emissions are considered, a hybrid-electric car running half the time on a high ethanol blend (E85) would emit "much less" than an electric car, Corre said. "Factually there is no reason to discriminate."

EU’s 2035 ban on new thermal cars won’t spell the end of biofuels, industry says

Biofuels: 'A crucial role' to decarbonise the existing car fleet

On the European Commission's side, Kuepker acknowledged that the full lifecycle is not being calculated at the moment. "The experts differ in their views on how much an electric car currently saves with regard to emissions - depending on the assumptions, where you go, how you use it, what is the emissions mix," he explained.

"But it's clear that electricity is one sector where we have much more potential to produce more renewables so our mix will become cleaner and cleaner. We can't only wait until it's fully clean before we start to electrify. We need to start electrifying now in order to have everything in place by 2035 to go full electric."

Kuepker acknowledged that motorists will continue to rely on fuels in the current stock of cars, saying those will likely remain there for a long time. "Biofuels will play a role there," he said. "But they can be then switched to be used in other sectors." Adrian O'Connell, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a US-based non-profit group, told the event he has been studying this question for heavy-duty vehicles and found electric to be cleaner even when full lifecycle analysis is taken into account.

"I understand the point about calling the emissions zero at the moment, but the EU grid is getting so green - look at a graph from 1990 to now, it's extremely impressive. Even if you use electricity from the EU grid, we've estimated about 60% savings compared to a diesel truck at the moment." "When it comes to biofuels, we know there are some that can make a positive impact," he said. "We're particularly interested in advanced biofuels.

But the problem is the demand for fuel in the EU transport sector is utterly colossal." "So while you may be able to have an E85 car which is very very low emissions, especially if youv'e got cellulosic ethanol, that's fine. But if you look at a country like Germany, the demand is absolutely colossal."

As of July, the car CO2 proposal will be taken over by the Czechs, who will hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU for the second half of the year.

Czech Environment Minister Anna Hubackova said on Monday she is eager to conclude the file in the next months.

> Watch the full EURACTIV event below:

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[Edited by Frederic Simon]