The Struggle of Biofuels in the Green Transition

In the last week of June 2024, the annual EUBCE conference for the biomass sector was held in Marseille, France. The event saw around 1600 participants, approximately 200 oral presentations, and 500 poster presentations. Supported by the European Commission, the conference aims to bring together scientists and industrial players for a shared dialogue.
We participated in the conference with a poster presentation and a workshop. Our poster showcased the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) process of the EU-funded Refolution project. In the workshop, we engaged conference attendees in discussions about the sustainability aspects of biofuels. The Refolution project focuses on developing new biofuels based on pyrolysis technology for maritime and aviation sectors.

The opening session of the conference highlighted the importance of sustainability and responsibility. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture and utilization (CCU) have seen a renaissance in the biomass sector, as emphasized in many speeches. Concurrently, the significance of the circular economy in systemic bioeconomy solutions was highlighted.
The bioeconomy encompasses materials, food and energy, around which systemic solutions are built.

Biomass raw materials can be classified into three categories:

1) “virgin” raw materials from agriculture and forestry

2) raw materials from side streams and

3) carbon capture and utilization

Biomass can also be viewed as carbon stocks and sinks. Instead of carbon neutrality or negativity, several presenters talked about sustainable use of carbon, highlighting the critical role of carbon and carbon dioxide in sustainable energy solutions. Sustainable agricultural and forestry practices were also emphasized as significant for the sustainability and responsibility of the bioeconomy.

From a social perspective, the conference highlighted that impacts are always context-specific. Local value chains and their effects on sustainability in terms of economy, environment, and social factors are always context-dependent. The so-called cascade principle was mentioned often. The cascade principle prioritizes the use of raw materials to create resource efficiency. For example, wood is initially used for making higher-value products, which are then reused or recycled, and not used for energy production until the end of their natural lifecycle. Thus, biomass would only be used for biofuel when it can no longer be used for higher-value products. Local conditions, ecosystems and markets provide the framework for implementing the cascade principle.

The discussion around the bioeconomy seems to be marked by some form of inferiority complex. Bioeconomy players, especially in the energy sector, must defend the sustainability and responsibility of their actions. Given public concerns about food production and biodiversity, adherence to sustainability principles is crucial to the future of the bioeconomy.

For instance, carefully following the cascade principle can increase the attractiveness of the sector and help restore its positive image of sustainability over time.
The reality is that biomass will never be sufficient to globally solve energy challenges; parallel solutions are needed. Presentations at the conference painted a picture of the role of biofuels and the broader bioeconomy in the sustainability transition: the bioeconomy can drive sustainability but needs to be complemented by other changes, such as consumption patterns and transportation habits. For example, many speakers highlighted that dietary changes to include less meat would free up land and biomass for other uses, thus also increasing the possibilities for a sustainable bioeconomy.
The general themes of the conference also emerged in the Refolution workshop, where concerns and solutions regarding the future of biofuels were discussed. On one hand, participants saw biofuels as the future of aviation and maritime transport; on the other hand, there was skepticism about the speed of change, as research and infrastructure transformations typically take a longer time. A recurring theme was the importance of market-based incentives to make sustainable biofuels an economically attractive option. Furthermore, increasing understandable and transparent information was seen as a way to raise the profile of the bio sector.


The bio narrative is evolving such that biofuels are seen as a transition phase solution, although solutions related to side streams and carbon dioxide utilization could be key to long-term sustainable systemic solutions. The burgeoning hydrogen economy could, in part, rely on combining carbon dioxide and hydrogen into fuels or plastics that replace their fossil equivalents. This way, the bioeconomy, circular economy, and hydrogen economy could form a robust sustainable whole in the future, not just as an interim step in the green transition.