What is E10 fuel? 

The transport industry is now the most polluting sector in the United Kingdom, producing the equivalent of 122 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MtCO2e) in 2019 – 27% of our national. Historically, the power sector was the biggest polluter, but in recent decades the UK has been transitioning towards cleaner energy sources, resulting in a dramatic decline in emissions from this sector. In comparison, transportation emissions have remained relatively stable. 

With the ever-mounting sustainability squeeze being put on fossil fuels the UK Government has announced that from September 2021, E10 petrol will be mandated across the UK, in a bid to reduce emissions from transport. E10 can be considered more sustainable due to its blend of 90% gasoline and 10% plant derived ethanol.  

E10 is not a new phenomenon. Biofuel use was pioneered in Brazil in the 70s and adopted in North America since the 90s, with E10 being introduced across Europe since 2009.  

The government claims the switch could slash transport CO2 emissions by 750,000 tonnes a year –equivalent to removing 350,000 cars from British streets. Despite the UK coming last in the E10 adoption race this can only be good news, right? Unfortunately, it’s not as cut and dried as they would have us believe. 

The E10 sustainable production myth 

Ethanol is produced through the fermentation of corn, sugar cane or beet making it a renewable resource with some even claiming it as a carbon neutral process, due to the plants absorbing carbon dioxide from the air while they grow and only subsequently emitting the CO2 when the fuel is burnt. However, the science is convoluted at best, with fuller studies suggesting that CO2 absorbed during the growth phase is not enough to offset the emissions from combustion, especially when if you account for the wider value chain related to fertilizer use, farm operations, refining and displacement of natural carbon sinks such as grasslands, wetlands and other habitats to grow these crops…not to mention the debates this has fired up over land use for fuel vs food. 

The more you dive into the science, the more evidence there is that long term and large-scale use of plant derived ethanol to replace gasoline is likely to be a pipe dream. Of course, innovation is springing up to address this; ethanol production companies are looking at adaptation to use biogenic waste rather than primary crop – for example using the starchy by-products of flour production.  It is still unclear, however, how scalable this will be.  

One clear advantage of ethanol use is its sovereignty, as the materials required for its production are widely available across most of the world. This announcement has the potential to decrease the UK’s exposure to the volatility of global oil prices through ramping up home-grown production from crops such as sugar beet. So, why has the government taken this long to introduce a measure that is at least in part sustainable, whilst simultaneously use this to strengthen their socio-political position internationally?  

E10 compatibility issues  

Whilst most of the UK’s 33 million car owners may notice they are getting slightly fewer miles per tank (due to the fuel efficiency of the mix being 4% lower), a larger issue is that not all vehicles operate on E10. Only petrol cars made after 2011 are E10 compatible, with an estimated 700,000 vehicles in the UK that are not, due to older car parts being more sensitive to the corrosive properties of ethanol.  

This will likely affect two opposing chevrons of our society, those least able to afford the newest models of vehicles, and those that partake in the UK’s £18 billion classic car industry. Consumers impacted will be left to choose between costly modifications to run E10, using the more expensive ‘super’ E5 (5% ethanol, 95%  regular petrol mix) alternatives that will still be stocked or replacing their vehicle with a newer model.  The latter is likely a short term solution against the background that fossil fuel vehicles may soon be too expensive to run if the government follows through with plans of upping carbon taxes, reaching 55% electric vehicles by 2032 and banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2035. 

Current petrol grades in the UK – known as E5 – contain up to 5% ethanol, with the other 95% being regular unleaded petrol. 

Their replacement, E10, will see this percentage increased to 10% – a proportion that would bring the UK in line with countries such as Belgium, Finland, France and Germany. However, as previously mentioned, if fuel efficiency of the E10 mix is 4% less efficient than current unleaded petrol then in reality we are only seeing a 1% improvement on the present situation.

E10’s impact on EV uptake 

Transport Secretary, Grants Shapps has drawn attention to the fact that E10 is a late-in-the-game, interim measure saying, “Before electric cars become the norm, we want to take advantage of reduced CO2 emissions today” (likely an attempt to boost the UK’s carbon reduction efforts in light of the upcoming COP26 being hosted here).  

However, it seems to us efforts could be better directed away from the infrastructure costs to make this switch, and towards a more realistic plug-in subsidy for EVs, which has fallen progressively from £5000 in 2011 to £2500, after a further £1000 cut this year. Of note, in the same period an implicit subsidy for petrol and diesel drivers has remained due to a 10-year freeze on fuel duty.  

If the UK is serious about achieving its net zero target, it would be best to follow the example set by Norway, where aims to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2025 have led to an exemption of certain taxes for fully electric vehicles, making them financially accessible enough to comprise 54.3% of all new cars sold in 2020.  

In summary, the introduction of E10 adds to the government’s growing heap of mixed messages. With scientists questioning the impact of E10 on the reduction of emissions in transport, and the government behind on its EV targets, it is unclear why this course of action was favoured. But what is clear is E10 is unlikely to be a silver bullet in the move to a zero-carbon world, and in fact is rather little, rather late. 

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