Europe’s major oil refiners are calling on the automotive industry to pave the way for synthetic fuels as a significant means to achieve the European Union's target of climate neutrality by 2050.
FuelsEurope, which represents 40 companies that account for almost 100% of EU petroleum capacity, said its plans, laid out today, could bring CO2 reductions of 100 million tonnes by 2035. It claims that is the equivalent of 50 million electric vehicles on the road.
While FuelsEurope recognises that synthetic fuels will be particularly suited to sectors such as aviation, maritime transport and heavy-duty transport, where no viable technological alternatives exist, it says that road transport must lead the way as “the sector is already heavily regulated and price signals already exist. This market will then enable [synthetic fuels] to become competitive.”
Until now, the oil refinery industry has been largely quiet on alternatives to petroleum, but the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has apparently hastened its reaction.
John Cooper, director general of FuelsEurope, said: “Today we are setting out an ambitious pathway for enabling transport to contribute to EU’s climate neutrality ambition by 2050, based on scale up of low-carbon-liquid fuels supply and use, across several transport sectors.
“With a clear societal and scientific case for far-reaching climate action, and taking into account the economic and social impacts of the coronavirus crisis, we respect that there will be no return to business as usual for the fuels industries.
“With the focus increasingly turning to recovery and new investments, we believe now is the time to start policy discussions with EU and national policy makers and customer stakeholders to design the enabling policy framework for the deployment of these essential low-carbon fuels.”
What are synthetic fuels?
Synthetic fuels, also known as low-carbon liquid fuels (LCLFs), are sustainable fuels from non-petroleum origins with no or limited CO2 emissions produced during production and use. They're typically blended with conventional fuels but could progressively replace them altogether and wouldn't be carbon-neutral until this occurs.
The enabling technologies for synthetic fuels include sustainable biofuels, hydrogenation of vegetable oils, biomass-to-liquid fuel (BtL) and e-fuels (liquid fuels created from electricity), as well as carbon capture and storage and clean hydrogen applied in refineries.
A number of car makers are already investigating synthetic fuels. Mazda is in the early stages of developing recyclable liquid fuels from microalgae, for example, while McLaren is planning a development car that runs on synthetic fuel to prove the technology’s validity as an alternative to battery-electric vehicles.
Electric cars vs synthetic fuels
FuelEurope says today’s announcement isn't a counter-proposal to electrification. A spokesman said: “We are convinced that [synthetic fuel] and electrification will live side by side, as there is no silver bullet… that will address the challenge of decarbonising the entire transport sector."
The body acknowledges that electrification will be particularly significant for cars and in certain regions, but it notes that full-scale electrification doesn't exist for most modes of transport, such as aviation and shipping. “[Synthetic fuels] and electrification are thus complementary,” it concludes.