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Laura Buffet is clean fuels manager at sustainable transport NGO Transport & Environment.
July is the start of the summer holidays, and for many in Europe the rush for some relaxing time in the countryside, the mountains or the beach. You might be one of the millions of Europeans who will be driving your car to your holiday destination with your family or friends. On the way there, one important question is going to be the fuel price at the pump. But holiday drivers most of the time don’t really know what they’re driving on.
People are well aware that European cars are running on fossil fuels. But very few drivers (if any) know that EU cars currently are driving partly on biofuels. Or if they are aware, they don’t know what type of biofuels and which impacts they have. These biofuels were initially promoted by public policy as a solution to decarbonise transport fuels, but most of the current EU biofuels have proven to have negative impacts for the climate and the environment. Rapeseed is the most used oil crop for biofuels at EU level but more and more palm oil is being used, making you, EU drivers, the top consumers of palm oil in Europe.
As the holiday break starts, the European Parliament is still trapped in the middle of intense discussions on the use of biofuels in Europe. Using land to grow crops for biofuels displaces other land uses, a phenomenon called Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) which causes additional greenhouse gas emissions, especially because it causes deforestation. In the past few years, more and more evidence emerged about the climate impacts of biofuels and several studies have shown that ILUC impacts are significant. For example, based on estimates from the latest study conducted for the European Commission, palm oil biodiesel is on average 3 times worse for the climate than fossil diesel, and biodiesel from rapeseed is 1.2 times worse. Put it simply, the cure is worse than the disease.
To limit the damages done by promoting crop-based biofuels, the EU started to reform its biofuels policy already back in 2012 and finally adopted a political compromise in 2015 which limits at 7% the amount of food-based biofuels in transport that can be counted as “renewables” under the main biofuels law, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). But the reform did not manage to account for the full climate impacts of biofuels – which means that EU food-based biodiesel is still considered a sustainable fuel despite projections showing that on average it is 80% worse for the climate than regular diesel.