Biomass and biofuels in the EU: Emotion-based policymaking?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Corn dryer silos

Discussions about land displacement and food scarcity caused by biofuels are driven more by “ideology” or “populism” rather than science, says Jörg Jacob, CEO of German Biofuels. [Shutterstock]

The European Commission’s tinkering on biomass policy effectively promotes oil over economically viable and sustainable biofuels, writes Francis X. Johnson.

Francis X. Johnson is senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Consider a region that depends heavily on imported fossil fuels, especially for transport—importing nearly 90% of its oil, two-thirds of its natural gas and nearly half of its coal.[1] This region has the ambition to dramatically reduce its GHG emissions, become more economically competitive and improve energy security. One would assume that this region would constrain fossil fuel use while promoting cost-effective renewables, particularly in transport, right?

Wrong. In its proposed legislative changes, the European Commission abandoned the position it adopted in the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED) of a separate target of 10% for renewables in transport. This is in spite of the fact that the transport sector lags far behind other sectors, with only 6% by the end of 2015, which as the Commission notes, is due in part to regulatory uncertainty.[2]

Well, maybe the issue is being addressed in the broader context of biomass use. The majority of biomass used in the EU and globally is for animal feed, followed by food, materials and heat/power. Only around 1% of biomass is used to produce liquid biofuels.[3] One would expect the main effort to be directed at improving the effectiveness and reducing GHG impacts for the large sectors, right?

Wrong again. The Commission focused on the sector that accounts for a tiny share of biomass use, proposing to phase out supports for biofuels based on “food crops.” The main rationale is the perceived competition between food and fuel. Thus we would expect to see both growing evidence and other regions following suit, especially in developing countries, right?

Wrong again. Although some countries promote biofuels from non-food crops, none has come out completely against using food crops. On the contrary, some developing countries have significant surpluses of food crops such as cassava and promote them for biofuels.[4]  Otherwise the crops will simply go to waste rather than supporting rural development.[5]

But certainly the Commission has considered the wide differences in GHG emissions associated with different biofuels so that at least there are opportunities for those first generation biofuels that meet the 60% reduction requirement, right?

Wrong again. The Commission lumps them all in the same category. This includes even ethanol from sugarcane, the biofuel with the best combination of environmental performance (60-80% GHG reduction) and cost-effectiveness.

Well, finally there is the issue of indirect land use change (ILUC) that can arise when biofuel crops lead to increased food crops that displace forests or other land use. Due to greater land use efficiency, the actual ILUC effects have been found to be much less than original estimates.[6] But presumably the Commission distinguishes biofuels that have lower ILUC?

Wrong again. The Commission ignored some aspects of its own report (GLOBIOM study) which showed that bioethanol feedstocks (e.g. maize, wheat, sugarcane) had much lower ILUC. Perennial crops even have the potential for negative ILUC since they increase carbon sequestration capacity. Yet all “food-based” biofuels are lumped together in the Commission’s formulation.

Since both advanced biofuels and electric vehicle technology are quite expensive and will take quite long to scale up, the Commission’s tinkering promotes oil over biofuels. Why isn’t the creation of jobs and livelihoods through the bio-economy higher on the policy agenda? There may be protectionism at play: potential developing country exporters have their competitive advantage in first generation biofuel crops due to sunny climates and high productivity, whereas they cannot compete with the capital-intensive and larger-scale second generation biofuel sectors.

So what are the reasons for such an inconsistent and ineffective approach? It has all to do with politics and nothing to do with coherent policy. First, farmers make up a tiny share of the EU population, resulting in less political weight compared to urban residents. Their much more numerous developing country counterparts, who lose out on the trade and development benefits of exporting to the EU, have no say at all. Second, the Commission was bombarded by attention-seeking NGOs that also received some support from opportunistic media sources in demonising biofuels and bioenergy. The rationale for such demonization arises partly from the fact that, as a smaller and more diverse sector, biofuels were easier to attack than the well-financed fossil fuel industries. Third, precisely because it is a diverse sector that is connected to the wider bio-economy, opponents can use a “divide and conquer” strategy by claiming conflicts across different biomass uses, whereas in reality there can also be synergies and complementarities.[7] Fourth, risk-averse bureaucracies tend to emphasise avoiding mistakes rather than seeking the potential gains from success.

The negative connotations of using food crops for energy seem to be sufficient to scare the Commission and Parliament away from a more comprehensive evidence-based approach. Indeed, it has been admitted that the policy is based more on emotions than facts.[8] It is not yet too late to reverse course and take a more balanced approach. But in the post-truth era after Brexit and Trump, perhaps are we moving from evidence-based policy-making to emotion-based policy-making?


[1] EUROSTAT, Energy Production and Imports, July 2016.

[2] COM(2017) 57 final, Report From the Commission to the European Parliament, The Council, The European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions Renewable Energy Progress Report

[3] Piotrowski, S.; Carus, M.; Essel, R., 2015. Global bioeconomy in the conflict between biomass supply and demand. Industrial Biotechnology 11(6): 308-315.

[4] Daily Monitor, “Cassava production rises as farmers benefit from ethanol plant,” 25 May 2016.

[5] Kline, K. L., Msangi, S., Dale, V. H., Woods, J., Souza, Glaucia M., Osseweijer, P., Clancy, J. S., Hilbert, J. A., Johnson, F. X., McDonnell, P. C. and Mugera, H. K. (2016), Reconciling food security and bioenergy: priorities for action. GCB Bioenergy 9(3): 557–576.

[6] Zilberman, D., 2017. Indirect land use change: much ado about (almost) nothing. GCB Bioenergy 9(3):485-488.

[7] Euractiv, “Loaded terms in the bioeconomy,” 24 February 2017.

[8] Euractiv, “Commission admits policing biofuels according to public opinion,” 17 October 2016.