Greenhouse gas emission intensity of fuels and biofuels for road transport in Europe

In 2019, the EU was not on track to meet its target to reduce the greenhouse gas emission intensity of fuels sold for road transport to 6% below 2010 levels by 2020. Between 2010 and 2019, emission intensity decreased by 4.3%, mostly due to the increased use of biofuels. Finland and Sweden are the only Member States whose emission intensities decreased by more than 6%, with the Netherlands reporting a 5.8% reduction in 2019. If the indirect land use change (ILUC) effects of biofuel production are considered, the emission intensity of fuels sold in the EU also decreased between 2018 and 2019, due to the limited substitution of oil crops as feedstocks by sugars.

Published: ‒ 25min read

Transport is responsible for more than 25 % of the EU’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and a major contributor to climate change. Cutting emissions from transport is pivotal to achieving the EU target of becoming climate neutral by 2050.

To support a reduction in GHG emissions from transport, the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) sets the target that fuel suppliers should reduce the emission intensity of fuels sold in the EU by 6 % by 2020, compared with 2010. In 2017, the average emission intensity of fuels in the EU was 3.4 % lower than in 2010, thus failing to meet the indicative target of a 4 % reduction by 2017. In 2018, the average emission intensity of fuels in the EU was 3.7% lower than in 2010, and in 2019, a 4.3% reduction had been achieved. Despite the improvement, as of 2019, the EU was not on track to meet its 2020 target.

The decrease in emission intensity of road transport fuels between 2018 and 2019 can be attributed mainly to an increase (from 5.2% to 5.6%) in the proportion of biofuels used, as biofuels have a lower emission intensity than fossil fuels. Also, there was a decrease in the emission intensity of the biofuels used between 2018 and 2019, because of a small decrease in the use of oil crops, which generally have a higher emission intensity than other feedstocks in biofuel production.

Biofuel use has contributed to a reduction in the GHG emission intensity of road transport in the EU. However, it is important to ensure that rising demand for biofuels does not have a negative impact on land use by displacing the production of food and feed crops and driving the conversion of land — such as forests and wetlands — to agricultural land, leading indirectly to increased GHG emissions. This phenomenon is known as indirect land us change (ILUC). The FQD requires that Member States identify the feedstock from which their biofuels originate and estimate emissions resulting from ILUC for certain feedstocks.

However, emissions from ILUC are not considered for assessing compliance with the 6% 2020 reduction target. If ILUC is taken into account, the average GHG emission intensity of fuels consumed in 2019 is only 2.6% lower than in 2010; it decreased between 2018 and 2019 because of the decreased use of oils crops substituted by sugars.

Progress towards meeting the 6% reduction target by 2020 varies widely across Member States. In 2019, Finland and Sweden had exceeded this target and the Netherlands was close to reaching it (5.8% reduction). This is because their road transport fuel mixes have relatively high proportions of biofuels (9% in Finland, 7% in the Netherlands and 22% in Sweden) and, on average, the biofuels used have relatively low emission intensities (10.4 g CO2e/MJ, 15.2 g CO2e/MJ and 14.1 g CO2e/MJ, respectively).

The three Member States that reduced their emission intensities the least between 2010 and 2019, namely Cyprus (1.4%), Latvia (1.8%) and Estonia (1.8%), use fuel mixes with much lower proportions of biofuels (1.7% in Cyprus, 2.6% in Latvia and 2.8% in Estonia) and, in the case of Latvia, the biofuels used have much higher emission intensities (32 gCO2e/MJ).

The effect that ILUC has on reductions in Member States’ emission intensities largely depends on the feedstocks used to produce biofuels. Oil crops are used extensively in several Member States, such as Austria (89%) and Lithuania (83%) and, if ILUC effects are considered, the GHG emission intensity of these biofuels increases and is therefore getting closer to the GHG emission intensity of diesel produced from fossil fuels (i.e. for Austria from 32 gCO2e/MJ excluding ILUC to 83 gCO2e/MJ including ILUC).

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