Recently released figures by EU statistics agency Eurostat show a spectacular drop in the amount of renewable energy used in the transport sector for 2021, a trend that affects almost all EU countries and is due to a change in the calculation methodology for biofuels.
Only four of the 27 member states – Croatia, Denmark, Finland, and Lithuania – managed to improve their renewable energy share compared to 2020, with all other countries recording a downward trajectory, according to Eurostat.
Ireland fared the worst, more than halving its renewable energy share in the transport sector. The island nation dropped from a 10.2% renewables share in 2020 to 4.3% in 2021.
Hungary recorded a sharp fall as well, dropping from a 11.6% share to 6.2%. Luxembourg saw a 36.7% decrease, going from 12.6% in 2020 to 8% in 2021.
Central and eastern European nations were subject to decreases ranging from 20.2% in Czechia to 13.8% in Poland to 10.2% in Romania.
The EU’s largest nations were also not immune: Germany saw a fifth of its renewable share in transport erased, falling from 10% to 8%. France, meanwhile, recorded a more modest decrease of 11%, while Italy saw a relatively minor drop of some 6.8%, reducing from 10.7% in 2020 to 10% in 2021.
Change in methodology
While the European Commission declined to comment formally, one explanation for the drop is that the updated Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) came into force, mandating a new approach to renewable energy calculation.
Asked by EURACTIV about the country’s decline in transport renewable energy, a spokesperson from the German environment ministry confirmed that the change is due to 2021 being the first year that was calculated according to the specifications of RED II.
“Both the share and the total amount of renewable energy in transport are almost the same in 2020 and 2021, only the statistical method has changed,” the spokesperson said.
“If the RED II method is used for both years, the value for 2020 is about 7.9% and for 2021 about 8%,” they added.
One major alteration under RED II is that the amount of waste biofuels (made from used cooking oil and certain animal fats) that can contribute towards transport renewable targets is capped at 1.7%.
This cap, which was required to enter into force in each member state by 30 June 2021, removes waste biofuels beyond the 1.7% limit from counting towards EU targets, hurting decarbonisation progress on paper.
Zoltán Szabó, a sustainability consultant for industry group Ethanol Europe, told EURACTIV that the drop in the renewable energy share can be primarily attributed to this.
“The drop from 2020 to 2021 is not just a result of a methodological change. It is mostly down to UCO being capped when calculating the contribution to RED II targets,” he said.
“Some countries, notably Ireland, Hungary, Slovenia, Portugal and the Netherlands had in 2021 more than half of renewables in road transport based on UCO. This share is most likely even higher today,” he added.
Member states are not legally obliged to limit their usage to 1.7%, but waste based biofuels cannot apply towards EU renewable energy goals beyond this level.
A modification of the limit is allowed under the Renewable Energy Directive, but must be approved by the European Commission. Small island nations Malta and Cyprus are exempt from the 1.7% cap.
Green campaigners have questioned the unrestricted use of biofuels derived from used cooking oil as a means to decarbonise the transport sector, alleging that UCO imported from abroad may be fraudulent.
A lack of used cooking oil supply from within the EU has indeed led to high levels of importation. Around 68% of UCO imports in 2019 were from Asia and the United States.
A 2022 study by the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT), a US-based non-profit organisation, cast doubt on Asian countries’ ability to meet rising UCO demand from Europe.
The study concluded that raising demand for biofuels from UCO increases the risk that restricted feedstocks, such as virgin palm oil, will be illicitly used to bulk up imported UCO quantities.
In response, the waste biofuels industry emphasised that importing companies are legally required to adhere to EU-imposed safeguards.
The contribution of crop-based biofuels to the transport sector’s renewable energy targets is also limited under RED II, with a 7% cap imposed.
The Commission decided to limit crop-based biofuels due to concerns that lucrative biofuel feedstocks were driving deforestation in developing countries, a phenomenon known in EU parlance as indirect land use change (ILUC).
However, industry has questioned the methodology used to calculate ILUC rates abroad, instead positioning crop-based biofuels as a means to rapidly replace fossil fuels, thereby cutting emissions in a sector that is traditionally difficult to decarbonise.