Study: Commission’s biofuels policy ignored ‘Better Regulation’ principle

The latest Eurobarometer survey on biofuels was conducted as far back as 2010 and showed that a large majority of Europeans (72%) felt that biofuels should be encouraged and only 20% held the opposite view. [Tom/Flickr]

The impact assessment study on which the European Commission based its proposal on the use of biofuels in transport after 2020 has “fundamental shortcomings” and ignored the Better Regulation principle, a new study claims.

As part of the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), the European Commission proposed reducing the contribution of conventional biofuels in transport from a maximum of 7% in 2021 to 3.8% in 2030.

It also set an obligation to raise the share of other ‘low emissions fuels’ such as renewable electricity and advanced biofuels in transport to 6.8%.

“Serious concerns”

But the impact assessment on which the Commission based its proposal was flawed according to a new study by the Impact Assessment Institute, a think-tank.

According to the study, “fundamental shortcomings” were found in the Impact Assessment as a whole as well as the legislative proposal for the Renewable Energy Directive in general.

The Commission’s Regulatory Scrutiny Board gave a negative opinion on the proposal, the the think-tank pointed out, stressing that this “contravenes the written provisions of the Better Regulation Agenda, with insufficient justification provided of the decision to override this requirement”.

Regarding biofuels, the report noted, “The policy to cap food-based biofuels for transport was assumed without supporting analysis and does not differentiate between the actual greenhouse gas (GHG) performance of biofuels,” including indirect land use change impacts.

A “political” decision

As part of the Better Regulation agenda, the European Commission set up a Regulatory Scrutiny Board (RSB), an independent advisory body providing the executive with opinions and recommendations on all draft impact assessments developed during the preparation of new legislative proposals.

In the case of the RED II proposal, the Commission submitted a first impact assessment for review on 25 July 2016. The board issued its first opinion on the impact assessment on 16 September 2016 and asked for the draft directive to be resubmitted. The Commission followed suit and and resubmitted a new draft on 17 October 2016. The board issued a second negative opinion on 4 November 2016 but “did not ask for the impact assessment to be further revised and resubmitted”.

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Contacted by EURACTIV.com, the RSB stressed that the rules of procedure of the Board provided for a maximum of two submissions.

“A positive opinion of the Board is required in principle before an initiative can proceed. However, in the absence of a positive opinion, the Commission can nevertheless decide to take action,” the Board said, adding that the executive must then explain its decision.

The Board continued, saying that the Commission had made the “political decision” to go ahead following adjustments to the impact assessment and the proposal.

Regarding its second negative opinion, the Board explained that it was mainly due to the consideration that “the subsidiarity and proportionality of the proposal were not sufficiently assessed”.

“We considered that the analysis on the sustainability of biofuels and their potential contribution to the Union-level target was not clear. We also recommended adding a policy option that addresses the deficiencies in the sustainability criteria (i.e: the absence of Indirect Land Use Change) and which would apply equally to all biofuels (advanced and food-based),” the Board told EURACTIV.

The ethanol industry has long called for a system to differentiate between biofuels based on sustainability criteria.

It claims that Europe should focus on phasing out fossil fuels as well as biofuels that drive deforestation, such as palm oil. But at the same time, it should not “sacrifice” sustainably-produced European biofuels that have high GHG savings and low risk of indirect land use change such as ethanol.

On the other hand, environmental NGOs generally lump all crop-based biofuels together and are pressuring the Commission to completely ban them after 2020, arguing that the future lies exclusively in so-called advanced biofuels.

However, last month, the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee called on the Commission to differentiate the crop-based biofuels and particularly favour those with high GHG-efficiency, “while taking into account indirect land use change (ILUC) and ensuring that existing investments are protected”.

“The Commission’s proposal is very crude […] it does not distinguish between good and bad biofuels and I think we need to have sustainability criteria here,” Green MEP Bas Eickhout emphasised.

MEPs ask Commission to distinguish ‘good and bad’ crop-based biofuels

The European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee endorsed on Thursday (29 June) its opinion on the European Strategy for Low Emission Mobility, calling on the Commission to keep the sustainable biofuels in the EU energy mix.

Public opinion and RSB

Marie Donnelly, who was then director of Renewables, Research, and Energy Efficiency in the Commission’s DG Energy, was the first EU official who publicly admitted that the Commission’s decision to phase-out the first generation biofuels was actually based on public opinion.

Commission admits policing biofuels according to public opinion

The European Commission’s proposal for a gradual phase-out of conventional biofuels was based on public opinion, an EU official admitted.

“We have to be very sensitive to the reality of citizens’ concerns, sometimes even if these concerns are emotive rather than factually based or scientific,” she told EURACTIV in October last year.

Marie Donnelly has been a member of the Impact Assessment Board, the predecessor of the current RSB.

Asked whether Donnelly was an RSB member at the time of the RED II impact assessment evaluation, the Board said that in the first half of 2016, she had been an interim member of the RSB to help ensure the transition while the RSB was being fully established.

“When the Board reviewed the impact assessment on the Renewables Directive in the second half of 2016, Mary Donnelly was no longer part of the Board. […] The current RSB Board members are all independent of the services and we have strict rules on avoiding possible conflicts of interests,” the Board noted.

Last month (12 June), EURACTIV asked Pierre Bascou from the European Commission’s agriculture directorate (DG AGRI) how the Commission measures public opinion. He replied it used public consultations and Eurobarometer surveys.

The latest Eurobarometer survey on biofuels, though, was conducted as far back as 2010 and showed that a large majority of Europeans (72%) felt that biofuels should be encouraged. Only 20% held the opposite view. No Eurobarometer survey on biofuels has been published since.

FAO official: Food-based biofuels not necessarily bad

Brazil demonstrates that sugar cane cultivation can supply both food and ethanol for fuel without harming the environment or pushing up food prices, a senior official from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has said.

Scientific studies: delayed publications

The EU decision to place a cap on food-based biofuels was based on a number of scientific reports.

One of them is the Globiom study. It was published by the executive in March last year after a series of internal delays, for which the Commission was strongly criticised.

The study notably found the climate impact of biodiesel to be much higher than conventional ethanol, putting the Commission’s biofuels policy in doubt.

Last month, another scientific study whose publication was also delayed by almost two years was released by the Commission. The study focused on E20 (20% ethanol blended into petrol) and other higher biofuel blends.

E20 has not yet been introduced in the EU and its standardisation is ongoing. It is expected to be on the market in ten years.

According to the study, E20 delivers GHG emission reductions. The different scenarios suggest that it can reduce GHG emissions by 4% by 2030 and achieve a 5% reduction even after ILUC is accounted for.

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