Wrong assumptions could lead to phase-out of conventional biofuels

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

Baumann: "Why should banks and companies trust the new framework to last longer than until the next negative NGO campaign?" [Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology/Flickr]

The European Commission cannot be trusted in its call to invest in advanced biofuels as experience with first generation biofuels set a negative precedent, writes Elmar Baumann.

Elmar Baumann is the Managing Director of the Association of the German Biofuel Industry.

How should the transport sector be decarbonised? Strangely enough, if the European Commission, some Parliament MEPs and some NGOs have their way, conventional biodiesel and bioethanol that have 5% of the fuel market should be phased out by 2025.

This is supposed to happen although they are the only alternative to fossil diesel and gasoline existing in larger amounts. Instead, so called advanced renewable fuels are to take their place and reach a share of 6.8% by 2030.

The Commission wants to phase out conventional biofuels on the basis of two assumptions: That there will be large investments in advanced biofuels and that there is enough feedstock available to produce it in large quantities.

These assumptions are founded on an impact assessment that discusses investment and feedstock availability. According to the scenario that the Commission based its proposition for the future legal framework for biofuels on, the EU will see a production capacity of 14.7 million tons for advanced biofuels in 2030 with investments amounting to € 900 million per year throughout the next decade – in total €9 billion. That is equivalent to the money Italy wants to spend on all renewable energies – in the next 25 years. And it corresponds to ten new concert halls like the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg.

But this will not happen. Why should investors believe that such a new legislation will give them a binding framework lasting longer than the one for conventional biodiesel and bioethanol – especially after they have seen billions of euros of stranded investment in biofuels in Europe?

In addition, NGOs, governments, and state agencies are hailing e-mobility and proclaim that it will replace liquid fuels. Against this backdrop: why should companies still invest billions of Euros in advanced biofuels, an energy source that runs combustion engines which the Commission, NGOs and the European Parliament keep attacking?

If the reasons for the phasing out of conventional biofuels were scientifically sound it would be easier to trust the Commission in its decision making. But neither the food versus fuel debate – strange now when looking at depressed food prices and more recent studies – nor the highly disputed iluc theory are giving sufficient scientific evidence for the sharp U-turn the COM is planning.

After this experience: why should banks and companies trust the new framework to last longer than until the next negative NGO campaign? Especially since the potential investors in advanced renewable fuels are likely to be the ones that have already invested into conventional biofuels – once bitten, twice shy.

Furthermore, the Commission`s proposal for the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) is driven by the assumption that there will be enough feedstock available to produce advanced biofuels amounting to 5.3% of the energy in the transport sector`s energy demand.

This assumption is based on the results of a study by Malins et al. which are rather surprising when compared to other scientific work. For example, the authors think that there are approximately 5 million tons of agricultural residues available in Hungary and Poland respectively while authors of other studies like the so called GLOBIOM-study have calculated that there is already an overuse of straw in those countries.

This means that soil quality is deteriorating due to excessive extraction that the Commission wants to even intensify for advanced biofuels – an unsustainable development.

Obviously, the Commission, MEPs and NGOs are cherry-picking: When considering iLUC, the GLOBIOM study is the Holy Grail, but when bringing forward unwanted messages concerning advanced biofuels it is not taken into account. The great difference between an estimation of straw availability and iLUC is that the first can be measured, the latter can only be guessed.

For decarbonizing the transport sector, Bas Eickhout from the ENVI- Committee of the European Parliament and NGOs want the European Union to switch to E-Mobility. But when looking at the large amount of emissions caused by the battery production it becomes obvious that it is worthwhile taking a closer look at its downsides, too. Until now there is no binding legislation for the sustainable production of batteries that run on electricity – a considerable difference compared to biofuels.

E-Mobility only makes sense if the energy used comes from renewable sources. But in the current energy mix in Europe over 70 % of the electricity is produced from coal and nuclear. Even if as of today new cars were to be only low emission vehicles it would take an enormous amount of time until the existing car fleet with combustion engines is replaced.

Or as the International Energy Agency phrased it: “Electric vehicles (EVs) still have a long way to go before reaching deployment scales capable of making a significant dent in the development of global oil demand and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”

Therefore instead of phasing out conventional biofuels and neglecting the challenges facing E-Mobility as well as disregarding the limited availability of advanced biofuels, politics should promote a combination of all sustainable alternatives in the transport sector. Of course, binding efficiency targets must be part of the 2030-policy.

This includes more pedestrian and bicycle traffic, a change in the modal split and avoiding transport. Decarbonising transport means using more E-Mobility, more hydrogen cars, and more advanced biofuels.

And yes, it also means using the remarkable stock of sustainably produced and certified conventional biodiesel and bioethanol we have in the European market today. It is a simple fact that conventional biofuels to date are the only existing alternative to fossil fuels that are produced in larger amounts and are reducing GHG emissions by approximately 7%. Only a limited amount of carbon can be released into the atmosphere if global warming shall be limited to 2°C, therefore we just cannot afford to neglect this option.