Last week, the European Biodiesel Board (EBB) organised its annual Policy Event, focused on the difficult decarbonisation of the heavy-duty vehicles (HDVs) transport sector, showing an acute awareness of the complexity and urgency of the challenge to take-up.
Xavier Noyon is the EBB Secretary General.
Decarbonising the current HDVs fleet affordably, while industry transitions to alternative powertrains
Let’s be real: it is a huge challenge that the Ukraine crisis and post-pandemic industrial difficulties have only made bigger. When discussing the HDVs sector, one must consider its diversity: local, regional, or international; goods or passengers; urban or rural; standard or specialised. These vehicles serve different purposes with different constraints. Even though most European vehicle manufacturers have announced that their battery-electric and fuel-cell trucks and buses are (almost) ready, many uncertainties remain concerning the readiness of the market to uptake these vehicles. Manufacturer and user concerns over the roll-out of the infrastructure are also inevitable. On top of this, transport operators also look at the total cost of ownership and the options available to meet different needs.
At the EBB event, EBB members producing both HVO (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil), and FAME (Fatty Acid Methyl Ester) biodiesel, discussed what the transition to decarbonised HDVs would look like with representatives from the automotive, transport and logistics, and hydrogen sectors.
All agreed this would not happen overnight, and many things remain uncertain.
We should remember the age of the EU’s HDVs fleet. On average, trucks are 13.9 years old, and buses 12.8 years old. The vast majority of these use fossil diesel: according to ACEA, in 2019 96.3% of trucks and 93.5% of buses were diesel-powered.
According to a study by studio Gear Up presented at our event, the European Commission’s own projections show a major share of circulating HDVs based on the diesel internal combustion engine (ICE) until 2040. This will remain true even if 50% of new trucks sold in 2030 are battery-electric (which is itself a very ambitious forecast). Moreover, to meet the additional demand for renewable electricity for transport, there must be a four- to five-fold increase in renewable electricity production. This includes the electricity needed to produce renewable fuels from non-biological origin production such as green hydrogen. Only after 2040 electrification starts to drive the emissions reductions significantly enough to reach the EU objectives.
The event reinforced that all industry stakeholders present have one shared goal: the displacement of every litre of fossil fuel as soon as possible. Moreover, the faster road transport emissions are lowered, the less pressure there will be to rapidly electrify while banning technologies like the ICE. A speedier transition is thus one where the costs are more bearable for operators and society. To achieve this, all available decarbonisation technologies must be part of the solution.
Biodiesel is ready to play its part, if we let it.
Biodiesel emits up to 90% less CO2 than fossil diesel, with every kilogram of biodiesel used reducing CO2 emissions by approximately 3 kilograms. Biodiesel-fuelled engines also emit significantly fewer pollutants, with reduced tailpipe emissions of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons (References). If the goal is to lower transport emissions 90% by 2050, while contributing to lowering total CO2 emissions 55% by 2030, biodiesel has a crucial role to play.
The potential of biodiesel was showcased several times during the EBB event. This included discussions of Oleo 100, B100 exclusive vehicles and tax incentives in France, and the roll-out of HVO100 in northern Europe. Such initiatives are already making a difference, offering decarbonisation options for different segments of heavy-duty transport. They will continue to do so, providing a safety net should infrastructure roll-outs, fleet renewals or increased renewable electricity production be slower than the Commission’s ambitions.
However, speakers also pointed out to some obstacles that must be lifted if biodiesel is to fully play its part:
- To make a difference by 2040, higher biodiesel blend use must ramp up immediately. This can be achieved through fiscal and non-fiscal incentives (e.g., access to low emissions zones for biodiesel-only vehicles) and solving issues around potential vehicle warranty voidance. If done right, the adoption of the EU ETS for road transport and the revision of the EU Energy Taxation Directive can be powerful tools in this regard, but timing and progressivity are critical.
- A stable and technology-neutral regulatory environment will provide the certainty needed for foster large-scale investment while nurturing innovation. The EU Renewable Energy Directive and its Annexes must remain stable and not constantly changed.
- Political acknowledgement that having several transport energy options is an asset. This also crucial to the future revision of the CO2 emission standards for new HDVs. The EU must move from the tailpipe emission towards a sound life-cycle assessment (LCA) approach.
Transport decarbonisation is a complex puzzle Europe must solve quickly. To do so, we need to overcome uncertainties and use all available tools. Every technology has risks, and there will be no silver bullets. Instead, let’s create a framework that nurtures innovation and allows all segments and sectors to play their part. We will not get any second chances, but with the right tools and incentives in place, we won’t need them.
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