4 Jul 22

Low-carbon fuel reduces more CO2 than EVs

To fight climate change, we must decarbonise. To decarbonise mobility, we must electrify our vehicles. That’s the goal of industries and governments across Europe and throughout the world. But what if we’ve got that wrong? A recent study suggests using low-carbon fuels could be more efficient than EVs in reducing CO2 emissions. 

The study was commissioned by FuelsEurope, an organization representing the interests of fuel refineries in the EU. Obviously, its members would benefit from continued fuel use. But that doesn’t mean the study’s arguments should be dismissed out of hand. 

Low-carbon liquid fuels

The study examines the TCO of battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) and vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICEs) in 16 EU member states, taking into account the comparative cost and environmental impact of low-carbon liquid fuels (LCLFs). 

In the European Union (EU), light-duty vehicles (i.e. cars and vans) currently consume about 72% of all energy devoted to transport. For comparison: aviation represents 13%, transport by ship about 12%. As far as the European Commission (EC) is concerned, full electrification of those light-duty vehicles is the main instrument for reaching zero-emission mobility by 2050 in the EU. 

That leaves out LCLFs as a major driver of decarbonization. And yet these renewable fuels, from a non-petroleum origin, produce no or little CO2 emissions, both during production and use. They are already added in a limited way to existing fossil-based fuels, but their use could be ramped up dramatically, the study suggests.  

Technical maximum

That would be necessary, because BEVs alone won’t help Europe achieve its emission reduction targets. Current policies would lead, for the EU by 2030, to a technical maximum in the EU of 30 million BEVs (12.5% of the total fleet of about 250 million vehicles), with LCLFs representing 10-11% of the total fuel mix – far from their technical maximum. 

The effect of EU measures on transport emissions. The green dotted line is the -55% target set by the European Green Deal. The yellow shaded area represents CO2 emissions avoided by more efficient ICEs. The blue shaded area: BEVs. Red shaded area: PHEVs. (Image: FuelsEurope)

In the words of the study, this represents “a blind spot for the role of low-carbon fuels to reduce the climate impact of mobility, especially in the passenger road segment.” 

Because the share of EVs remains relatively low before 2030, the efficiency gains in new ICE engines will in fact contribute more to CO2 emission reductions than the ramp-up of electrification. LCLFs could also contribute after 2030, as the share of ICEs on the road will remain significant thereafter.

TCO and carbon impact

Turning to the implications of this fact for motorists, the study compared TCO and carbon impact of an ICE version of the VW Golf (but using LCLFs) with an all-electric VW ID.3 in multiple EU countries.

To pick France as an example: in one scenario, changing from petrol (E5) to bio-ethanol (E85) would reduce emissions by 1.1 tons of CO2 equivalent per year, while TCO would reduce by €444 per year. Switching to BEVs provides comparable savings in CO2 equivalent, and – depending on whether subsidies are included – either higher or lower TCO. However, this calculation does not include the considerable investment required in EV charging infrastructure. 

Competitive with EVs

France, as it happens, produces low-carbon electricity thanks to the large share of nuclear power in its energy mix. In countries with more carbon-oriented energy sectors, vehicles with renewable fuels often outperform EVs when it comes to both emissions and cost. 

In conclusion: ICEs powered by renewable fuels (i.e. e-fuels and biofuels) can be competitive with EVs – both on price and cost. Given the slow penetration of EVs into Europe’s overall vehicle fleet, the study suggests a short-term increase in production capacity for LCLFs could provide a significant boost for Europe’s decarbonization policy – EVs alone won’t help the EU achieve its 2030 target. 

Main image: Shutterstock

Authored by: Frank Jacobs