The European Commission came under heavy criticism yesterday (30 November) after proposing to phase-out conventional biofuels by 2030.
The European Commission presented its draft proposal to review the Renewable Energy Directive for the post-2020 period as part of a Clean Energy Package presented on Wednesday (30 November).
The EU executive proposed to reduce 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%.
The Commission’s U-turn on conventional or first generation biofuels has sparked heated discussions in Brussels.
Marie Donnelly, Director for Renewables, Research, and Energy Efficiency in the Commission’s Energy directorate, explained the reasons behind the decision to phase out first generation biofuels at an event in the European Parliament last October.
In essence, she said the Commission should take public perceptions into account when deciding on policy, even when they are wrong. And in the case of biofuels, public opinion is simply negative, she argued.
“We cannot just be led by economic models and scientific theories,” Donnelly said. “We have to be very sensitive to the reality of citizens’ concerns, sometimes even if these concerns are emotive rather than factual based or scientific,” she stressed.
According to Donnelly, public concerns regarding conventional biofuels is a purely emotive reaction to “food versus fuel”.
“Friendly to oil”
The European renewable ethanol association (ePURE) strongly criticised the European Commission’s intention to phase out conventional biofuels, saying its proposal is “incredibly friendly to oil”.
According to the ethanol industry, the EU executive disregarded the mandate given to it by the European Council and Parliament to develop a post-2020 policy that promotes sustainable biofuels with high greenhouse gas savings.
“Conventional ethanol produced in Europe has high GHG savings of 64% compared to petrol and the Commission’s research proves that it has a low risk of negative land use consequences,” ePURE noted.
“Instead of further promoting renewable alternative fuels, such as sustainable biofuels made in Europe and produced from European feedstock, the Commission’s proposal is incredibly friendly to oil,” it added.
ePURE said this is in line with a European Strategy for Low-Emission Mobility, presented by the Commission on 20 July, which emphasised the need to decarbonise the transport sector as part of an EU-wide goal to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40% by 2030.
Robert Wright, ePURE’s Secretary-General, also underlined that lowering the limit on conventional biofuels to 3.8% undermined the €16 billion invested in European production facilities since 2003 as a result of the existing EU biofuels policy, which runs until 2020.
“The proposed phase-out of conventional biofuels means that the Commission has now proposed 4 different changes to the targets for renewable energy use in EU transport since the adoption of its first biofuels policy in 2003,” Wright noted.
If implemented, the ethanol industry projects that the Commission policy would result in the permanent loss of 133,000 rural jobs supported by the ethanol industry.
All biofuels in the same bag
A potentially bigger issue for the ethanol industry is the Commission’s lack of differentiation between ethanol and other biofuels like biodiesel.
Ethanol has a lower climate impact than biodiesel, which is not reflected in the draft Renewable Energy Directive.
“Report after report, it has been absolutely clear that ethanol and biodiesel have different climate impacts,” said Eric Sievers, director of investments at Ethanol Europe, referring to a recent study for the European Commission, which highlighted differences between the two.
The study, performed by the Globium consortium of research institutes, revealed sharp differences between biofuels when it comes to converting agricultural land for growing energy crops instead of food – a process referred to as Indirect Land Use and Land Use Change (ILUC).
Palm oil, which is used both in biodiesel and food products, is singled out in the study as being the worst for climate change, causing deforestation in places like Indonesia.
But according to the Commission, member states will be able to make the distinction themselves when implementing the new Renewable Energy Directive.
When EurActiv asked the Commission why it did not differentiate ethanol from biodiesel Donnelly replied, “because both of them are coming from food. I’m sorry but it’s as simple as that.”
“The first emotive reaction was that you take food off the table of a poor starving child in Africa and you put it into the tank to burn it. That’s why it’s almost impossible to differentiate biodiesel from bioethanol because they are both coming from food products.”
The European Biodiesel Board (EBB), an industry group, said the proposed differentiation between biodiesel and bioethanol was “unjustifiable” because “it is not science-based”.
“As recognised by the Commission many times, and stressed out on several occasions by independent scientific parties such as the California Air Resources Board in the USA, ILUC is a theory and cannot be observed nor measured,” the EBB said in a statement.
“Only by maintaining a 7% target for protein-generating biofuels, reversing the subsidiarity granted to the member states which would allow them to differentiate between biodiesel and bioethanol and promoting a gradual and realistic phasing-in of advanced biofuels, long-term stability and legislative certainty can be granted to the overall European value chain,” it added.
EBB Secretary General Raffaello Garofalo said the exclusion of conventional biofuels from the incorporation obligation of fuel suppliers was “unacceptable”, and predicted an increase of fossil fuels in transport due to lack of availability of advanced biofuels, and an abandonment by the EU of the COP21 ambitions and objectives.
Combining ethanol and advanced biofuels
Novozymes, the world’s leading supplier of enzymes for the production of conventional and advanced ethanol, noted that the Commission failed to reflect in its proposal the latest science and evidence.
Novozymes said conventional ethanol “effectively reduces GHG emissions today (by 64% on average compared to petrol) even when indirect impacts are accounted for. “They have a legitimate role to play in the EU energy mix,” Novozymes wrote in a statement.
Regarding advanced biofuels, Novozymes hailed the executive’s proposal but pointed out that advanced biofuels were not meant to replace perfectly sustainable conventional biofuels.
“To achieve low emission mobility in Europe and reduce the transport high dependence on oil, all good solutions are needed and should be allowed to contribute. Sustainable biofuels such as ethanol and advanced biofuels are among those good solutions. Combined, they reduce more emissions from transport fuels and replace a greater share of fossil fuels,” Thomas Schrøder, Vice-President for Biorefining, Novozymes.
Lack of scientific background
Luc Vernet, a senior advisor at Farm Europe, a think tank that specialises on agriculture and food policies, told EurActiv that opposing first generation and second generation biofuels was not in line neither with the reality on the ground nor with sound analysis.
“Both biofuels – based on EU sourced material – should be encouraged in the context of the circular economy and climate goals. The lack of scientific background behind the move of the European Commission is worrying,” he noted.
Vernet also said he would be interested in finding the impact assessment used to halve the biofuels.
Referring to a Farm Europe study covering the period 2005-2015 on the impact of the development of the first generation biofuels, he said there was no basis to qualify EU sourced biofuels (made from EU oilseed, cereals, and beet) as “food wasting biofuels”.
“On the contrary, having assessed the impact on land, food and agriculture, we have clear evidence that EU sourced biofuels contribute to food security and transport decarbonisation,” he explained, adding that a clear distinction should be made by EU decision-makers between palm oil and waste oils, which are mainly palm oil as well.
According to Vernet, it is palm oil which has a real detrimental impact on the environment whereas other biofuels have a positive impact on climate – with at least a 50% saving in greenhouse gases.
Jelena Simjanovic, clean energy director of Transport & Environment (T&E), said: “Despite all its promises four months ago about electrifying transport and stopping bad biofuels, this proposal means our cars and trucks will be burning almost as much palm oil and other food-based biodiesel in 2030 as they do today. The Commission again rushes into a huge market for new and unproven biofuels, but it does nothing to reward suppliers of clean electricity in transport. The inconvenient truth is that this proposal will not reduce Europe’s transport emissions to any meaningful extent.”
“The proposed Renewable Energy Directive says member states can still count a 3.8% share of food-based biofuels towards their renewable energy targets for 2030, barely down from the 4.9% market share they had in 2014,” she noted, adding that this would increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from European transport over the period 2021-2030 by an amount equivalent to the emissions from the Netherlands in 2014.
“On average, biodiesel from virgin vegetable oil leads to around 80% higher emissions than the fossil diesel it replaces. Biodiesel made from virgin vegetable oil is the most popular and cheapest biofuel in the European market with a market share of three-quarters in 2014. Of all biodiesel, palm oil has the highest GHG emissions – 303% of the emissions of fossil diesel, because palm expansion drives deforestation and peatland drainage in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Last year, 46% of all the palm oil used in Europe ended up in the tanks of cars and trucks. This makes drivers the leading (albeit unaware) consumers of palm oil in Europe,” she concluded.
WWF’s Alex Mason commented that the bioenergy proposals were a prelude to another biofuels' “fiasco”.
“The vast majority of future energy supply needs to come from wind and solar, not bioenergy. But instead of allowing those technologies to flourish, today’s proposals create big new incentives to use more bioenergy - and without any meaningful sustainability criteria. This means that we are likely to see further increases in types of bioenergy that offer few if any benefits over fossil fuels,” he noted.
“There is a particular risk that the clearing of forests to provide chips and pellets for the EU energy sector - something that is already happening at an alarming level in the EU and in third countries - will greatly accelerate, even though on a 2050 timescale such an approach is likely to lead to higher emissions,” he added.
Linde Zuidema, Fern’s bioenergy campaigner, stated: “With today’s proposals, the new Renewable Energy Directive will actually allow for an increasing reliance on biomass for renewable energy. Particularly concerning is the target for advanced biofuels and the target for renewables in heating and cooling. The heating and cooling sector currently rely on biomass for almost 90 percent of its renewable energy.”
“This renewable energy proposal shows the EU Commission has failed to learn from the big biofuel debacle. It does not guarantee that burning wood for energy, the largest contributor to renewables in Europe, saves emissions, nor does it protect forests. It is now up to the EU Parliament and the EU member states to rectify this,” she added.
The European Waste-to-Advanced Biofuels Association (EWABA) believes that despite several positive elements, the Commission's proposal for a new Renewable Energy Directive can still be improved during its legislative passage.
EWABA Secretary General Angel Alberdi said: "We understand that there are multiple conflicting interests in the industry and the Commission has made great efforts to strike a balance with this legal proposal. We see several positive aspects in the draft but believe that some elements can be improved during the forthcoming legislative procedure."