Europe currently imports four-fifths (80%) of the used cooking oil that it uses as fuel for cars, trucks and planes, new Transport & Environment (T&E) analysis of latest biofuels data shows. The vast majority (60%) of these imports come from China. With the global airline industry pushing for used cooking oil as a key ingredient in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), T&E has called for greater transparency to avoid used cooking oil (UCO) becoming a backdoor for palm oil.
Europe’s consumption of used cooking oil more than doubled between 2015 and 2022, with most of it going in the continent’s cars and trucks in the form of biodiesel. But with local UCO supplies limited by both the capacity of local authorities to collect it and how much used cooking oil Europeans can produce, the continent now relies overwhelmingly on imports for its supply. This is set to grow as airlines push for more UCO as a key ingredient in SAF. Last month, Virgin Atlantic launched the ‘world’s first 100% SAF transatlantic flight’.
High demand for UCO has raised the risk of fraud, where virgin oils like palm are suspected of being mislabelled as ‘used’ to take advantage of the inflated value of supposedly green fuels. Several countries, including Germany and Ireland, are launching their own official investigations into fraud risks. The European Commission also promised to investigate fraudulent Indonesian biodiesel potentially transiting through China and the United Kingdom to circumvent taxes.
Barbara Smailagic, biofuels expert at T&E, said: “Europe is being flooded with dodgy used cooking oil. European governments say it’s almost impossible to stop virgin oils like palm being labelled as waste. We need greater transparency and a limit on imports to avoid UCO simply becoming a backdoor for deforestation-driving palm oil.”
China is by a long way the continent’s largest supplier of UCO accounting for 60% of imports and 40% of Europe’s total UCO supply. Spain and Italy are particularly reliant on Chinese UCO, while 96% of Bulgaria’s UCO imports come from China.
The data also shows that in 2022, palm oil biodiesel dropped by almost 30% following a phase-out in several countries, compared to the year before.
At the same time, Europe saw a significant uptake in palm oil derivatives such as Palm Oil Mill Effluents (POME) and Palm Fatty Acid Distillate (PFAD), which cancelled out nearly half of the decrease in palm oil between 2020 and 2022. Incorrectly labelled as “waste” or “residues” in some countries, PFADs are by-products of the palm oil refining process. They are linked to significant environmental impacts and indirect land use change as is the case for conventional palm oil.
Barbara Smailagic said: “Europe never tires of finding new things to burn. Before it was palm oil, now it’s so-called palm residues. Sustainable biofuel feedstocks are extremely limited. We need to stop seeing biofuels as a panacea for our climate problem. We need to move beyond burning.”
Despite a shift towards second generation biofuels like UCO and animal fats, biodiesel remains on average nearly 20% worse than traditional diesel, T&E’s analysis shows. Nevertheless, it is still rewarded under the EU’s green fuels law – the Renewable Energy Directive (RED).
Unlike biodiesel, the share of crop-based bioethanol declined only slightly over the past decade falling from 95% in 2010 to 85% in 2022. Corn remains the most dominant feedstock, followed by wheat and sugar beet. Using these crops in biofuels puts pressure on the environment and global food prices, says T&E.