Food, Feed and Fuel for Europe: The Future of Renewable Ethanol

As policymakers put the finishing touches on the EU's Fit for 55 program, they must consider the combined benefits of bioethanol. Beyond climate, it is a proven driver of energy independence, food security and rural economic development.
By David Carpintero | December 17, 2022

Predicting the future direction of EU biofuels policy has never been easy, but developments in the last few months have given some refreshingly clear signposts to a promising road ahead for the European renewable ethanol industry.

As policymakers hammer out the final details of the so-called Fit for 55 package of climate and energy legislation, there is at least general agreement that reducing emissions from transport requires an important role for sustainable biofuels. That’s important, because biofuels such as renewable ethanol are the most immediate, affordable, sustainable and socially inclusive solution the EU has to reduce emissions from the petrol and hybrid cars that will continue to predominate on Europe’s roads for a long time.

Renewable ethanol already has a proven track record in the fight against climate change—with 77 percent average emissions savings compared to fossil petrol—and keeps improving its GHG-reduction performance as European biorefineries keep innovating. It requires no expensive new infrastructure. It makes an impact on emissions now and will help Member States meet their increasingly ambitious targets for de-fossilisation of transport.

Production of renewable ethanol in Europe has other important benefits, notably in contributing to EU food security. Contrary to the misleading and discredited arguments about “food vs fuel” that were heard during the Fit for 55 debates on biofuels, EU ethanol production actually contributes to food security. In fact, in 2021 European renewable ethanol biorefineries produced more high-protein animal feed than fuel—helping ensure an important domestic supply. This was achieved with no deforestation or land grabs: ePURE members’ ethanol production in 2021 required less than 1.8 million hectares (Mha) of European arable land, equivalent to only 1.2 percent of the total arable land of EU27 and the UK—more than three times less than the current area of set-aside and fallow land in the EU27.

The land use for ethanol crops is even more negligible, factoring in the co-production of animal feed together with renewable ethanol. Out of the 1.8 Mha, only about 1.1 Mha is attributable to the sole production of ethanol, which is 1 percent of the total arable land of EU27 + UK.

These and other factors were taken into account in September when the European Parliament wisely rejected amendments that would have placed further restrictions on European crop-based biofuels, which are already capped at a maximum of 7 percent of Member States’ road and rail energy and subject to strict sustainability criteria. Such restrictions would have made it harder for Member States to reach their decarbonization objectives and increased EU dependence on imported fossil fuel.

Even with that 7 percent cap in place, there is still room for the renewable ethanol market to grow in Europe, as not all countries have implemented E10 and many still struggle to meet GHG reduction targets.

The outlook is more uncertain when it comes to CO2 standards for cars and vans. Here legislators have acted more narrowly, focusing on battery electric vehicles as a sole solution and touting a ban from 2035 on sales of cars with internal combustion engines.

But even the deal reached by the EU institutions in October leaves open the possibility for “CO2 neutral” liquid fuels to continue to play a role. The agreement foresees that the Commission prepare by 2025 a methodology to assess the full lifecycle emissions of vehicles put on the road, including emissions from the fuels and energy consumed by the vehicles.

As part of its review of what constitutes “CO2 neutral fuels,” the European Commission should take into account the continuously improving GHG-reduction performance of EU renewable ethanol, and recent studies that show hybrid vehicles running on high-ethanol blends have lower GHG emissions than battery electric vehicles on a full-life-cycle basis.

Even looking beyond their proven climate benefits and immediate scalability, it’s easy to see the benefits of keeping sustainable biofuels in the EU transport mix, such as contributing to energy independence and food security and boosting rural economies. As policymakers put the finishing touches to the Fit for 55 picture, they need to keep these in mind.

Author: David Carpintero
Director General ePURE,
the European Renewable
Ethanol Association
[email protected]