The expected role of biofuels in transport sector decarbonization. A meta-analysis of published EU scenarios
It is common knowledge by now: transport is and stays as a big GHG emitter in the EU and worldwide. It accounted for 27% of EU-28 total emissions in 2017, and the sector runs almost entirely on fossil fuel. How this can be curbed? And what will be the expected contributions of biofuel in achieving a zero-emission transport sector by 2050? And what will be the expected contributions of biofuel in achieving a zero-emission transport sector by 2050? A review of more than 40 sectorial forecast scenarios, conducted by the Research COnsortium for R&D (RE-CORD), found out consensus on two main facts: sustainable biofuels will still play a fundamental role all the way through 2050, and advanced biofuels are expected to become the largest share of biofuels contribution yet before 2040.
It is common knowledge by now: transport is and stays as a big GHG emitter in the EU and worldwide. It accounted for 27% of EU-28 total emissions in 2017, and the sector runs almost entirely on fossil fuel. How this can be curbed? And what will be the expected contributions of biofuel in achieving a zero-emission transport sector by 2050? Energy and policy analysts, organizations of stakeholders – including civil society, as well as International organization published scenario estimations in recent years. A review of more than 40 sectorial forecast scenarios, conducted by the Research COnsortium for R&D (RE-CORD), found out consensus on two main facts: sustainable biofuels will still play a fundamental role all the way through 2050, and advanced biofuels are expected to become the largest share of biofuels contribution yet before 2040.
Through an extensive literature review work carried out by RE-CORD, which also provides the scientific coordination of ART Fuel Forum (AFF), more than 15 recent publications were collected (from 2016 onwards) stemming from the main governmental and private sector organizations, and reporting quantitative previsions on fuels demand in the EU transport sector over the 2030 to 2050 time period. All analysed studies referred to pre-Covid conditions.
The analysis led to the collection of a fairly large amount of data, further reduced to a set of high-level indicators, such as the total final energy consumption in the whole transport sector, together with total biofuels and advanced biofuels expected consumption. Given the substantial projections differences found across the various reports, an average “Mid” scenario has been selected, together with “Low” and “High” scenarios, which define the variation range. An overall picture of the results is provided by Figure 1.
Referring to average figures among those reported in the studies, the total final energy consumption in transports is expected to decrease during the first half of the 2030-2050 period, as an effect of energy efficiency measures, combined with a quite extensive road fleet electrification. Total biofuels average contribution should grow from 24.5 Mtoe at 2030 to 48.3 Mtoe at 2050. Advanced biofuels are expected to take the lead towards the second half of the period, totalling 36.5 Mtoe at 2050. In relative terms, biofuels are projected to weight for almost the 8% of total final energy consumption in transport at 2030 and almost the 18% at 2050, with advanced biofuels growing from 2.8% (actual values) at 2030 – thus surpassing the RED II target – to more than 13% at 2050.
Sustainable biofuels contribution to the transport sector has then been framed into the expected EU fuel mix; the results are shown in Figure 2. It is interesting to note that, even at 2050, in the collected scenarios fossil fuels were expected to keep playing the bigger role, accounting for slightly more than half of the total demand. Together with all sustainable biofuels, which would remain the main contributors among renewable energy sources, they will almost reach a 70% share of the total. Electricity contribution at 2050 is expected to grow five times from 2030 levels, reaching 15% of the final demand. E-fuels and hydrogen are also expected to play an important role by 2050 (each with a 7% share of the total), while their forecasted role at 2030 is really minor in this average picture. This projection gives further strength to the point stating that no “silver bullet” exists to decarbonize transport sector: all possible contributions are needed, with biofuels and low carbon fuels as a non-replaceable part of the framework.
The study then further deepened the analysis, to evaluate the forecasted biofuels contribution to the four specific transport sub-sectors of light passenger vehicles and heavy-duty vehicles, aviation and maritime. Confirming the already highlighted trends, sustainable biofuels are expected to thoroughly grow across all the four sub-sectors. However, while in aviation and maritime sectors biofuels are expected to ramp-up considerably, in the road sectors the expected growth is somehow less pronounced, given their already consolidated presence and the emerging role of electrical transports. Figure 3 and Figure 4 show sectorial trends for biofuels demand, with the orange line referring to the average values and the light blue columns showing the variation ranges. To better compare the different projected growth rate for total biofuels consumption within the various sub-sectors, data has been normalized, with the 2030 “Mid” value set equal to one, and the other values being accordingly scaled.
The assembled figures of these estimated sub-sectorial scenarios generally show relevant uncertainty ranges, with this being particularly large for aviation and maritime sub-sectors. Peculiar trends can also be found, such as with HDV projected ranges for biofuels consumption that are in no case expected to fall below 2030 levels. This could be related to the fact that this sub-sector is seen, at least to a rather large extent, as a difficult area to electrify.
RE-CORD’s study shows that the vast majority of reviewed works are expecting sustainable and advanced biofuels to play a fundamental role in the decarbonization strategy to 2050, together with low carbon fuels. The need to ramp-up the production and deployment of sustainable alternative transport fuels is recognized as well by the recent Green Deal communication as an essential action, to be deployed immediately. Anyway, in order to fully untap their potential, an effective, stable and tailored investment and policy framework has to be put in place, supported by stable regulations. The published works that RE-CORD analysed could require some slight revision, following the pandemic situation occurred in 2020: however, the long-term scenarios should not be significantly modified.
All the numbers and figures described in this article are derived from a study by the authors that is already finalized and currently under preparation for journal submission.
 Including direct electricity.