Historically, agrofuels were one of the first levers for decarbonizing the road transport sector. Following the example of Brazil – a powerful producer of ethanol made mainly from sugarcane – certain countries with significant biomass resources have built a large part of their mobility on agrofuels. The recent development of “zero-emission” [tailpipe] vehicles, made possible by electricity and hydrogen, combined with the limited availability of biomass, has raised important questions about the best uses for agrofuels.. Considered more complex to decarbonize, heavy-duty vehicles as well as the maritime and aviation sectors seem to be the preferred targets in the current European strategy.
Beyond this general trend, these “alternative” fuels – a term that encompasses agro or biofuels and synthetic fuels – are attracting renewed interest for a number of reasons. Firstly, some countries are struggling to meet their energy targets under low-carbon scenarios. In this context, agrofuels represent an easily operational energy source that requires little short-term investment, unlike electrified technologies in particular. What’s more, the historically attractive tax system and economic support for the sector across the entire value chain mean that the cost to the user is relatively low.
Upstream, production volumes are highly vulnerable to climate change and to the programmed phase-out of certain phytosanitary inputs, as illustrated by recent debates concerning neonicotinoids. As a result, the expected reduction in yields could lead to competition between biomass uses, undermining current agricultural models.
The multiplicity of significant, but not exhaustive, parameters mentioned above justifies in-depth work on the role of agrofuels in future mobility.
Based on a detailed understanding of established research and the issues involved in biomass production, the Mobility in Transition Insitute aims to offer further expertise on the possible uses of biofuels in French transport. To address this often ill-defined subject, a number of underlying factors need to be considered:
- Energy independence narrative
- Interest in protein co-products (oil cakes) for livestock farming
- Necessity for decarbonizing certain sectors (military)
- Creation of rents through relatively captive markets calling for oligopolies
- Budgetary cost for the French State
- Demand for water and nitrogen fertilizers and undoubted impacts on biodiversity
- Issues related to air pollution from these fuels in urban environments, even though some agrofuels are encouraged in LEZ
- Marketers’ profitability, given the development options available to them in the various biofuel sectors (allocation logic).
- Import and export market dynamics, for raw materials, oils and/or finished products