UN partners with ethanol producers to boost biofuels at COP23

Sugar beet in a crop used in bioethanol production. [igorstevanovic/Shutterstock]

The UN’s climate change agency has joined forces with a European bioethanol company to promote the use of biofuels in transport, as global leaders prepare for the COP23 climate conference in Bonn in November.

This partnership between Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd (EERL), the operator of Europe’s largest biorefinery, and UN Climate Change is a product of the drive for private sector solutions to climate challenges launched at last year’s UN ‘Conference of the Parties’ (COP22) in Marrakesh. It will be heavily promoted at this year’s Bonn conference.

Nick Nuttall, director of communications and COP23 spokesperson for UN Climate Change, said: “The world has embarked on an unprecedented journey to a sustainable and more secure future. […] Partnerships of all kinds will be an indispensable catalyst for positive momentum.”

EERL recently founded an industry alliance to encourage policymakers to accelerate the uptake of biofuels in transport, as a way to cut carbon emissions. The transport sector is the second biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, after buildings, and the ethanol industry is keen to position itself as the provider of a transition fuel on the road to complete decarbonisation.

Eric Sievers, investment director of EERL, said: “Biofuels are a potential solution for decreasing the carbon footprint of the fleet of gasoline burning engines, which is large and still growing.”

Biofuel debate a political hot potato as EU renewable energy law nears home straight

Talks over how to decarbonise the EU’s transport fleet are heating up. As policymakers prepare the bloc’s renewable energy targets for 2030, part of the debate has crystallised around the role of biofuels. And farmers are getting increasingly vocal.

Indeed, most of the fossil fuel-powered vehicles on the road today will still be in use in the decade to come and the industry sees a blend of petrol and ethanol as the most efficient way to decarbonise transport in the short term.

According to 2016 figures from ePURE, the European renewable ethanol association, the ethanol used in Europe’s transport fuel produces 66% lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than petrol, even when land-use change is accounted for. This is because EU ethanol crops are almost entirely home-grown on surplus farmland and do not compete with food production, the association says.

Criticism of biofuels policy in the EU has crystallised around the question of emissions from indirect land-use change: the idea that using agricultural land to make fuel displaces food production and leads to land-use change elsewhere. This can take the form of deforestation or the conversion of other carbon-rich ecosystems to farmland, increasing the indirect carbon footprint of these fuels, cancelling out any GHG savings and causing unwanted societal side-effects.

More than half of EU biodiesel made from imported crops, study finds

Some 53% of EU biodiesel is made with imported feedstock, according to a recent analysis of European Commission data by NGO Transport and Environment, and almost half of imported palm oil is burned in car engines.

Dissonance between EU and UN

Molly Scott-Cato, the lead MEP on the EU’s post-2020 renewable energy legislation, described the UN’s partnership with EERL as “disheartening”. “The EU must send a clear message to the UN by phasing out all biofuels under the RED II directive,” she said.

Under the recast of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED II), which will govern the bloc’s renewable energy policy from 2020-2030, the Commission has proposed to cut the cap on crop-based biofuels (including ethanol) in transport fuel from 7% to 3.8%.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ethanol industry sees things differently.

“The message from the UN could not be clearer,” said Emmanuel Desplechin, secretary general of ePURE. “If Europe wants to reduce carbon emissions in transport it needs every sustainable renewable energy source it can get, and that includes renewable ethanol.”

But the European Commission has defended its decision to cut the cap on biofuels in transport to 3.8%, saying that according to its own data “their contribution towards reducing GHG emissions is considered to be limited”.

Sievers accused the EU executive of being “in denial”. He said the EU executive was “pursuing a policy that is damaging to the climate” and that “guarantees oil a bigger share of Europe’s fuel market for decades ahead”.

The 6-17 November conference in Bonn follows on from the 2015 COP21, which saw the historic signing of the Paris Agreement, under which global leaders agreed to take action to limit global temperature rises to +2°C above pre-industrial times, and the 2016 COP22, where leaders agreed to encourage climate action by non-state actors.

The COP23 will be attended by the 197 signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Positions

Molly Scott-Cato, Green MEP for southwest England and Gibraltar, said: "The UN appears to be under the same delusion as many MEPs in the EU that believe that biofuels are a viable and sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. The reality is, that biofuel production (including bioethanol) is already the cause of deforestation, land-grabbing and hunger across the globe.

"The biofuel lobby are an extremely powerful force, having pumped in over €14m and hired nearly 400 lobbyists at EU level alone between 2015 and 2016, and it is disheartening to see the same influence at UN level. The EU must send a clear message to the UN by phasing out all biofuels under the REDII directive."

Eric Sievers, investment director of EERL, welcomed the UNFCCC’s constructive approach to the major challenge of decarbonising transport.  “UNFCCC recognises that ethanol and other sustainable biofuels have an important role to play in decarbonisation for decades ahead.  Key jurisdictions throughout the world do likewise, including the US, Brazil, China and India.  The EU is the exception and continues to pursue a policy that is damaging to the climate.  Popular and political support for ethanol continues to grow while the European Commission remains in denial.  This policy is supportive of fossil fuel and guarantees oil a bigger share of Europe’s fuel market for decades ahead.”

Emmanuel Desplechin, Secretary General of ePURE, said: Following the US withdrawal of the Paris agreement, the EU wants to be a world leader in tackling climate change but falls short of delivering. Its own proposed legislation discourages, rather than encourages, low carbon fuels solutions such as renewable ethanol. The message from the UN could not be clearer: if Europe wants to reduce carbon emissions in transport it needs every sustainable renewable energy source it can get, and that includes renewable ethanol. As EU lawmakers now decide the fate of the EU biofuels policy they should listen to the global experts on the issue.”

 

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