Car exhaust fumes

The Fuel Quality Directive of the European Commission: A step in the right direction, but only a short one.

John Pearson

The car and van are undeniably the choice modes of transport; road traffic miles in the UK rose by 2.3% this year on last, and have risen by over 20% in the last two decades.  The environmental impact of our seemingly untameable preference to travel by car and transport goods using heavy goods and light goods vehicles remains, therefore, one of the most significant challenges in environmental protection. John Pearson (@johnrpearson) considers the efforts of the European Union (EU) to reduce the impact of this resilient tendency through the Fuel Quality Directive.

The most recent addition to the variety of texts on this divisive issue was finalised in 2009 and entered into force in June of the same year. The Directive aims to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from fuels used for transport by 6% before the end of 2020. While representing an admirable and achievable goal, the Directive fails to address the multitude of issues presented by both oil extraction generally as well as the implications of the implementation of the limits proposed within the Directive regulating the quality of the end product. In order to achieve these aims the Directive imposes that fuels with emissions above a certain level over their ‘lifecycle’ i.e. from their extraction to consumption in the mode of transport in question, cannot be sold within the union for use in certain vehicular modes of transport (note that aircraft remain exempt from this more stringent lifecycle fuel analysis).

The most obvious issue with regulating emissions from fuel used for transport, whether successful in that aim or not, is that its focus is just that. While transport represents around two thirds of the fuel usage of the EU as a whole, the quality of fuel utilised for other purposes escapes the admirably broad approach to measuring the impacts of fuel use undertaken in the Directive (See specifically Annexes I and II). The remaining third of EU emissions are therefore monitored and regulated only according their final output i.e. emissions at the final point of consumption.

The approach is a stark contrast to the ‘lifecycle analysis’ approach taken within the Fuel Quality Directive with respect to transport which measures emissions ‘from Well-to-Wheels’ and considers all processes in between. As a result, the aims of the Directive are somewhat undermined. If the emissions of all processes undertaken to extract, refine, transport and combust (in the vehicle’s engine) transport fuel consumption, yet all fuels used for other purposes are considered merely in relation to their emissions at the point of final consumption, the entire system is undermined?

By way of illustration, a fuel source with a high lifecycle GHG intensity could not be used under the Directive to power transport. However, utilisation for the purposes of the other two thirds of EU fuel consumption, for example burning to produce electricity, would be acceptable. Other mechanisms to curb emissions of GHGs as a result of consumption for purposes other than transport are in place, such as the equally derided European Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). However, the emissions for this mechanism are not based upon a lifecycle analysis, but rather the value produced at the final point of consumption. Thus, even in the most transport heavy using? High GHGs? Member States of the EU, or on the bleakest? projections for future use, where transport fuelled by petrol and diesel accounts for two thirds of consumption, the net impact of this measure on emissions could be negative. The values for carbon emission intensity for certain oil sources vary wildly, but it is not uncommon for projections to place some sources as over twice as intensive as others. In such instances, should Member States choose to allocate sources according to use as suggested above the result would be neutral or potentially negative.

For example let us consider a hypothetical situation where the emission cap for fuel used for transport was 10 emission units per barrel and below. If 65 barrels of fuel consumed for transport had a carbon intensity of 10 emission units per barrel, the net output would be 650 emission units, and if the remaining 35 barrels of oil required to be consumed to meet existing demands were obtained from a source with a carbon intensity of 20 emission units per barrel the net emissions would be 700. Net overall emissions might have fallen if we assume the average emission units per barrel was 15, i.e. it would now be 1350 as opposed to 1500.

However, as time progresses this will be ever less likely to be the case; as the availability of conventional crude oil continues to dwindle, the use of unconventional oil such as the so-called ‘tar sands’ of Alberta, Canada, will rise. While not always true, unconventional oil sources involve proportionally higher lifetime emissions owing to the increased difficulties of extraction. To put it simply, we have used up all the oil which is easily obtained and has low lifecycle emissions.  Thus, the potential impact of the Fuel Quality Directive would be to negate any carbon emission reduction. An overall limitation on fuel quality would be preferable, ensuring that all fuel consumed within the EU was below a set threshold of emission intensity. Such an approach would promote the so-called three R’s in all uses of oil as a fuel source considered in scientific research involving harms (most commonly in vivisection) reduction, replacement and refinement. As a result the use of oil as a whole would be undertaken with far greater consideration of alternative approaches or fuels.

The suggestion of such an approach is, however, easily rebutted by an underlying policy goal of the EU, only tentatively considered by proponents of a low-carbon model for the EU, and that is energy security. The Directives on emissions trading and intensity considered above do not apply in relation to the Directive concerning oil and petroleum product stocks. The Directive requires States to maintain a 90-day supply of such products as are necessary for the production of energy. The very fact this provision exists reflects a degree of realism on the part of the EU that few environmentalists will concede, and this is quite simply that while its aim remains to achieve lower carbon emissions in line with the objectives to which it has acquiesced under the Kyoto Protocol, the lights must stay on.

The oil retained for energy-production purposes is not subject to the provisions regarding oil emissions intensity, or emissions considered as part of the industrial emissions for the purposes of the ETS, and understandably so. The Commission is quite simply stuck in an eternal Catch-22: maintain a level of development to which we have become so accustomed the majority could not cope without it, and slowly reduce carbon emissions through promotion or persuasion, or concede a lower standard of living and a adopt a more forceful approach. Such a policy would be likely to receive widespread condemnation from Member States and citizens alike.

While in a utopian reality a wholesale reduction in emissions intensity would be preferable, we are all too often minded to consider only one policy issue at once. The Commission is, however, not afforded such luxuries, and as such its concessions to certain sectors (note the variances in relation to air transport fuel regulation and the non-lifecycle analysis of emissions from insutrial sectors) are somewhat warranted. Indeed, it has arguably adopted the boldest? approach and attracted the most ire as fuel prices are only likely to be inflated? as a result of the Fuel Quality Directive as demand for less intense sources will rise. Certainly they have come down most strongly on the bulk of consumption in the Union by regulating transportation. However, in following through on this policy and driving towards further emissions reductions, it must be aware of the potential to redirect emissions rather than reduce them.

John Pearson (@johnrpearson) is an Associate Lecturer at Lancaster University and Part-Time Lecturer and Bangor University in North Wales. He researches in human rights law and environmental law at international, regional and domestic levels. He has written on the use of human rights to protect environmental features of particular cultural significance and this is the focus of his doctoral thesis and research with a particular focus on the tar sands of Alberta, Canada and on regulatory reactions to the use of extreme sources of energy.

You can find out more about John’s research at


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