Europe’s Use of Biofuels Nearly Doubles

Rapeseed field
Rapeseed field in Germany.
Photo by -waterproof-

Consumption of biodiesel, ethanol, and other biofuels accounted for 1.8 percent of the European Union’s transportation energy in 2006, up from just 1 percent in 2005, according to the most recent Biofuels Barometer, a publication supported by the European Commission. The 25 EU member countries consumed 5.38 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe) of the fuels last year, up from slightly less than 3 mtoe in 2005.

Germany was by far the regional leader, consuming 3.3 mtoe of biofuels, with France a distant second at 0.68 mtoe. Biodiesel, mainly derived from rapeseed oil, accounted for nearly 73 percent of Germany’s biofuel use, followed by straight vegetable oil (18 percent), and ethanol (9 percent). Total European biofuels growth is believed to be somewhat higher than reported in the study because five smaller consumers—Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, and Slovakia—have not yet provided estimates.

Under a 2003 directive, the EU set a target for biofuels to represent 5.75 percent of the region’s transport fuel use by 2010. According to the Biofuels Barometer, political decisions will play a key role in determining national levels of biofuels use. The report notes that while tax exemptions are the principal form of financial support for biofuels in the region, EU countries are increasingly setting up more restrictive systems that obligate fuel suppliers to incorporate biofuels into their product offerings.

High oil prices and climate change are the leading drivers behind rising European biofuels consumption, according to the report. “The continually high price of the barrel of Brent crude at more than $60 (double the 2003 price), the imperatives of reductions of greenhouse gases and of reduction of energy dependency, are all elements that have contributed to a rapid development of biofuels over the last few years,” it says.

Experts welcome the trend in biofuels consumption but also raise a note of caution. “Biofuels can help to address many of the challenges that nations face today,” observes senior researcher and energy expert Janet Sawin with the Worldwatch Institute. “But they could exacerbate existing environmental and social problems if they are not developed in a sustainable manner. International standards and certification programs are essential, and the details of government policies will play a role in determining which path we follow.”

According to Sawin, important issues to consider in biofuels development include the choice of crop used as a feedstock and what it replaces, the technologies and energy sources used to produce the fuels, and the extent to which small farmers and rural communities share in the benefits. For example, she notes, if intact tropical forests are cleared to make room for planting energy crops, this could destroy critical habitat for diverse species and cause the release of large amounts of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.