This article is part of our special report Europe’s transport decarbonisation.
Europe’s demonstrated preference for ideology over science explains why Europe is both the most vocal climate proponent on the world stage and also the most wasteful and ineffective one, Eric Sievers, director of investments at Ethanol Europe, told EURACTIV.com in an interview.
“That’s the danger of ideology, a situation in which folks who think they are fighting oil spend an entire decade spreading misinformation about the only actual market threat to oil and so preserving oil’s market share,” he said.
“In most societies, when facts collide with theories, facts win. Europe is different. It’s really scary that climate activists in Europe still argue against non-palm biofuels on the basis that what they heard in 2008 just felt right and so must be right,” Sievers added.
How can biofuel usage be increased under the Effort Sharing Regulation of the Clean Energy Package when RED II is designed to reduce biofuel consumption?
The Clean Energy Package rules were never thought through in Brussels. The unstated base assumption of legislators (and most NGOs) is and has always been that the transport sector is small and that the power sector is almost synonymous with energy in general. That could not be more wrong. The power sector accounts for less than half of EU energy.
So rules requiring Member States to heavily green the entire energy sector (which is what the Renewable Energy Directive does) or heavily decarbonise their non-EU ETS sectors (which is what the Effort Sharing Regulation does) cannot, in either case, plausibly sidestep the transport sector and still hope to deliver headline results in a cost-effective manner.
Indeed, the Energy Governance Regulation requires member states to make economically sound decisions, and member states that choose extremely expensive carbon mitigation solution may win applause from certain sectors, but when the costs come due, voters are certain to make it clear to governments that carbon budget accountability is no different than education budget accountability, military budget accountability or medical budget accountability. Governments that waste money are bad governments; those that achieve goals cost-effectively are good governments. Conventional biofuels are, by an order of magnitude today, cheaper than electric vehicles or mythical advanced biofuels, and they are scalable now, whereas nothing else in the transport sector will be to 2030.
So, no matter what the RED says or what pie-in-the-sky fantasies persist among the talking heads in Brussels, conventional biofuels are the primary good governance choice for transport decarbonisation in the next decade.
Why should the EU member states consider increasing biofuel use to achieve the NECP targets?
Responsible member states should maximise biofuels use immediately because EU sourced conventional biofuels are proven, sustainable, inexpensive and scalable. This action should be complementary to consistent pushing for great gains in e-mobility, modal shift and advanced biofuels. In climate, carbon savings that only appear in 2030 are almost no help to the global climate, compared to savings that appear in 2020 and continue for the rest of the decade. The consensus of the climate scientists is that what happens over the 10 years will be crucial to whether there is any hope of keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees. Accordingly, any Member State policies that defer progress until late in the decade are deeply anti-climate, and any Member State policies that achieve 2030 targets early are climate champions. In context, self-styled visionaries pushing ideal solutions or single solutions (like e-mobility) have become more part of the problem than part of the solution. Many are driven by ideology and not by physical, economic or technological realities. At this point, climate action is really more about good management than ideology. Europe has a troubled history when it allows ideologues to invade governments, and there is simply no difference between ideology in the climate space and ideology in any other public issue.
According to you, what level of biofuel use the member states should include in their NECPs?
Finland and Sweden already have biofuel usage rates that are an order of magnitude above those in the rest of the EU and on par with Brazil. These examples make clear that basically all of the arguments about how difficult biofuels are simply cannot be true. Scaremongering about biofuels is remarkable just as much for its prevalence as for the simple fact that doomsday predictions have no empirical merit at all. The only black spot on biofuels is palm oil, and that is solved by banning palm. Banning palm is what opens the door to a sensible biofuels policy in Europe.
So today, the average biofuel inclusion rate in Europe is 5%. We know we can get to 10% without really changing anything. Sweden, Brazil and Finland show that 30% is also a 2020 solution and so hardly pushing the envelope for 2030 ambition. So we’d hope to see the several member states considering at least 20% by 2030 and all Member States getting to 10% as early as possible, hopefully no later than 2022.
After all, the simplest fact about biofuels is that they 1:1 displace oil. You can see directly how biofuels contribute to keeping oil in the ground.
What frameworks must governments put in place to ensure strict sustainability?
We already have a sustainability system in place, and within Europe, it works. The problem is that the RED was infected from day one with a policy approach that does not work: multiple counting. Introduced to spur innovation, it failed completely to do that, and instead, has resulted in massive and even expanding fraud in biofuel imports. While dozens of countries around the world are looking to first mover countries to design their own biofuels policies as a component of reaching their Paris Agreement goals, the RED’s multiple counting will never be adopted by anyone outside Europe. To the extent the current sustainability criteria can be improved, getting rid of multiple counting would do more than every other reform combined.
The goal of climate policy is not to solve the problem of high oil prices, but to reduce oil consumption. Oil is massively successful exactly because it has been inexpensive most of the time over the past 100 years. If biofuels were cheaper than oil, we wouldn’t need climate policy in the transport sector. One amazing fact about biofuels is that they are from time to time less expensive than their fossil counterparts, and over time the periods when they are less expensive are becoming more frequent, especially in countries like Brazil and the United States where biofuels policies have been strong, unlike Europe.
So the rational starting point for transport policy is not to find something cheaper than oil, but to embrace the most cost-effective alternatives to oil. A well designed 2030 policy will thus result in minimal cost to society and in the case of biofuels can offset greater costs in the transport sector with greater benefits in the industrial and agricultural sectors. Governments can also gain because there is no loss to the Exchequer or major infrastructure costs. Indeed, today in Europe the benefits biofuels bring to sustainable rural development are on par with their price premium over fossil fuels, meaning they really don’t cost society anything.
How do you explain the EU stance on the biofuels issue?
From 2008-2012 there was an onslaught of entirely imagined threats from biofuels: complicated models showing huge increases in crop prices from biofuels in 2020, a supposed six million hectares of African land that would be used to produce biofuels for Europe by the middle of this decade, a supposed lack of farmland and countless other non-empirical, but generally plausible potential outcomes. In retrospect, since biofuels were new in 2010, society can be forgiven for falling for theories and models that contradict basic agricultural economics and industrial realities.
I say in retrospect because it is now 2019, and 2020 is now not so much an imagined future reality. Actual 2020 has zero biofuels coming in from Africa rather than 10 billion litres. Actual 2020 has crop prices that are lower than in 2010 by a good deal, rather than higher. Actual 2020 will have millions of hectares of less farmland in Europe than was the case in 2010 since farmers have been abandoning farming.
All of these facts mean that in any sane world, the biofuels scaremongering theories of 2010 would be tossed out as not only wrong but so dead wrong that all that has happened is that we have documented just how great biofuels are in practice. And in most societies, when facts collide with theories, facts win. Europe is different. It’s really scary that climate activists in Europe still argue against non-palm biofuels on the basis that what they heard in 2008 just felt right and so must be right.
That’s the danger of ideology, a situation in which folks who think they are fighting oil spend an entire decade spreading misinformation about the only actual market threat to oil and so preserving oil’s market share.
Ideology and bad policy are historical bedfellows. Europe’s demonstrated preference for ideology over science explains why Europe is both the most vocal climate proponent on the world stage and also the most wasteful and ineffective one.
[Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos and Benjamin Fox]