Europe Still Needs Ethanol

Under almost any scenario, including those foreseen by the European Commission, the EU car fleet will continue to need low-carbon liquid fuels like renewable ethanol.
By Emmanuel Desplechin | April 13, 2021

As pressure to make real progress in the fight against climate change mounts in Europe, there has been increasing talk of banning the internal combustion engine for passenger cars. But don’t start writing any automotive obituaries before stopping for a reality check: Under almost any scenario, including those foreseen by the European Commission, the EU car fleet will continue to need low-carbon liquid fuels like renewable ethanol.

The EU is in the middle of a massive re-thinking of its energy and climate policies, including transport decarbonization. To succeed, it must resist the temptation to follow overly dramatic, technology-du-jour solutions such as imposing an immediate switch from internal combustion to electric vehicle power trains, driven by a restrictive approach that considers only tailpipe emissions and misleadingly labels electromobility as emissions-free.

Fortunately, the EU has a variety of policy tools it can use to make better use of existing and proven emissions-reduction solutions, including: distinguishing between fossil and biogenic carbon dioxide; setting higher targets for renewable energy in transport in EU Member States; reforming the way energy is taxed so renewable low-carbon fuels are favored over fossil fuels; and creating favorable investment conditions for the growth of advanced biofuels.

Making such an immediate impact is important because, until now, the EU’s policies have largely failed to make a dent in Europe’s dependence on fossil fuel in the transport sector—reducing it by just 2.2% since the Renewable Energy Directive was enacted in 2009.

That may partly explain why the quick-fix concept of banning petrol and diesel cars makes headlines. The most recent salvo was a call from nine EU Member States for the European Commission to set a date for phasing out the sale of cars with internal combustion engines. The commission has largely remained silent on this idea and other Member States, such as Germany, keep shooting down the concept as unworkable, expensive and potentially socially disruptive.

Clearly, electric cars are part of the solution and will grow in importance. But even as their sales rise, there are still concerns about the implications of a massive uptake of electric vehicles—concerns that would be amplified in any scenario involving a prematurely enforced ban on internal combustion engines. These include: a lack of charging and grid infrastructure; an unwelcome reliance on nuclear power and electricity generated from coal, gas and oil; concerns about the sustainability of battery production (most of which occurs outside of Europe); and the social impact of requiring new and expensive technology that may not immediately be within reach of many European pocketbooks.

At the very least, EVs should not be considered a miracle solution to road transport decarbonization. The most recent sales data from European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association illustrate the point: While it’s true that electric car sales have steadily increased, Europeans are still buying mainly cars that run on liquid fuel.

Nearly half (47.5%) of all new cars sold in Europe in 2020 run on petrol. The fact that these vehicles will be on Europe’s roads for a long time underlines the need for EU transport and energy policy to consider the importance of low-carbon solutions such as renewable ethanol.

Low-carbon liquid fuels remain the best way to reduce emissions from these vehicles, including the hybrid-electric (HEV) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) that have seen increased interest from car buyers. Production and use of renewable ethanol from ePURE members delivered an average of more than 72% greenhouse-gas savings compared to fossil fuels in 2019. Ethanol’s sustainability score keeps improving every year, making it an essential tool for achieving the EU Green Deal.

As EU policymakers consider key legislation such as the Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy, they should remember that Europe will need more than one solution for decarbonizing road transport in the coming decades. Even as electrification grows in importance, the need for low-carbon liquid fuels will stay significant and that’s what should drive EU policy.


Author: Emmanuel Desplechin
Secretary General
ePURE, the European Renewable Ethanol Association