EU risks missing climate goals without ‘sustainable’ biofuels, experts warn

Julie Girling: “Renewable energy use in transport requires a serious and sensible grip on what can be achieved." [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The European Commission’s proposal to gradually phase out “sustainable” first generation biofuels will prevent the EU from meeting its 2030 climate goals, experts claim.

In November last year, 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.

The executive proposed that biofuels should have a limited role in decarbonising the transport sector and should not receive public support after 2020.

Commission under fire over post-2020 biofuels targets

The European Commission came under heavy criticism yesterday (30 November) after proposing to phase-out conventional biofuels by 2030.

The Commission’s plan is to reduce the contribution of conventional biofuels in transport from a maximum of 7% in 2021 to 3.8% in 2030, effectively bringing crop-based biofuels use to pre-2008 levels.

It also created 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 was heavily criticised by industry. Ethanol producers accused the executive of being supportive of oil use in EU transport, while the biodiesel industry called the proposal “unacceptable”, predicting an increase of fossil fuels in transport due to a lack of availability of advanced biofuels.

Missing climate goals

Speaking at an event in the European Parliament on Tuesday (10 January) organised by the European renewable ethanol association, ePURE Secretary General Emmanuel Desplechin pointed out that the use of “sustainable conventional biofuels” such as ethanol made from corn, wheat, and sugar beets would help the EU meet its climate and energy goals for transport.

He, also, said that it could be a real “missed opportunity” for the EU.

“Instead of further encouraging the use of renewable low-carbon fuels, such as biofuels made in Europe from sustainably produced European feedstock, the Commission’s proposal is friendly to oil,” he noted.

The industry claims that ethanol produced in Europe has 64% GHG higher savings compared to petrol, which is equivalent to the annual GHG emissions of 4 million cars.

In a policy paper, the industry calls the Commission’s proposal “counteractive” and says that it risks missing the EU 2030 climate and energy goals, leaving a shortfall of approximately 10% from what is needed.

Policy confusion

Tory MEP Julie Girling [ECR], who hosted the event, expressed her concerns regarding the European Commission’s proposed policy framework.

“I worry about the confusion policy backdrop,” the British MEP noted, adding that EU lawmakers should focus on science.

“Renewable energy use in transport requires a serious and sensible grip on what can be achieved […] to change the policy rules for biofuels – not once, not twice, but three times – doesn’t strike me as a sensible way forward,” she emphasised.

Electric vehicles

Dr Paul Deane of the Environmental Research Institute, University College Cork, noted that transport was responsible for about 1/3 of the energy that we consume in Europe and about ¼ of our emissions.

“It’s the only sector that emissions are on increase across Europe and this is worrying,” he said, adding that a lot of member states have a lot of ground to cover and many others will not meet their binding 10% goal by 2020.

For Dr Deane, this slow progress could be attributed to the fact that bioenergy policies have been one of the most volatile policy areas in Europe. “The political uncertainty around the policy has stalled a lot of investments,” he emphasised.

Another reason, according to Deane, is that the original renewable directive’s “hopes” for advanced biofuels were not met over the last few years, primarily due to costs, the collapse of the oil market and political instability, which has contributed to the lack of investment in a number of projects.

Referring to electric vehicles, he said that they would play an important role in delivering emissions’ reductions for passenger cars from now to 2050. However, their impact in the short to medium term is “small or ineligible”.

“Modelling by the Commission shows electricity in road transport reaching between 1%-3% (of energy in transport) by 2030 and up to 20% by 2050. The same modelling shows liquid biofuels meeting 36% of energy in transport in 2050,” he explained, stressing that their expensive technology will be faced with a difficult commercial landscape.

More common sense

Deane also emphasised that we should not forget biofuels.

“Biofuels that demonstrate proven emission reductions and low indirect land use change (iLUC) should play a role in decarbonizing transport in Europe,” he said, adding that there was a need for a more common sense approach of energy in transport, where “policies encourage the correct type of biofuels that deliver significant emissions’ reductions and policies that discourage biofuels which don’t”.

He noted that bioenergy was a wide family of fuels, and that the challenge to EU lawmakers is to develop a policy that is clear and makes distinctions between the different families of biofuels.

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.

Deane also criticised the perception of science in EU policy, saying that one should not be picky.

“Policy should be science-based and evidence-driven. In Europe, we either accept the science or we don’t,” he concluded.

No information on employment

Bernd Kuepker, policy officer with DG Energy, explained the executive’s rationale behind the proposed plan and noted that member states might set a lower limit and distinguish between different types of biofuels, for instance, by setting a lower limit for the contribution from food or crop-based biofuels produced from oil crops, taking into account iLUC.

But, he stressed that there was a difference between the ethanol from crop-based starch and advanced biofuels, which have low or negative estimates for iLUC.

“On the contrary, [crop-based starch] has clearly positive and really significant iLUC and will not be able to achieve the savings that the Commission aims at,” the EU official said.

Another important angle is the risk for job losses, where the industry believes that the Commission’s plan will lead to the permanent loss of 133,000 direct and indirect rural jobs.

Asked by EURACTIV.com whether the Juncker Commission has conducted an employment impact study of the case, Kuepker said that there was none in place.

“We looked at different factors and generally what has been considered is that the highest share of jobs is in the agricultural sector and we don’t expect it to stop,” he stated, adding that with the plans for advanced biofuels, job losses related to first generation biofuels will be compensated.

“So, it’s certainly not a policy whose main objective is to create jobs, but the proposal will not decrease the employment rates either,” he concluded.

Positions

Dr. Carlo Hamelinck, an energy expert at Ecofys consultancy, said that sustainable biofuels are essential for sustainable transport and noted that it was remarkable that the Commission decided to limit them as without biofuels, more cropland is abandoned and a decline of EU agricultural sector is expected.

He explained that conventional biodiesel feedstocks had typically large ILUC impact due to the loss of soil organic carbon in grass and forest land contrary to the conventional ethanol and advanced fuels, which both have a lower ILUC impact thanks to the lack of connection to palm oil.