Better law-making requires more transparency

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

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 should make public a study on biofuels it commissioned itself, even if it doesn’t like its results, writes José Inácio Faria.

José Inácio Faria (Partido da Terra) is a member of the European Parliament from Portugal, and is affiliated with the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

In 2009, the EU established an overall policy for the production and promotion of energy from renewable sources in the European Union.

A key part of that policy was the establishment a mandatory 10% minimum target to be achieved by all member states for the share of renewable energy in transport by 2020.  Then, and now, biofuels are the only real options to replace oil, at scale, in the near to medium term.

The logic of the mandate was that it would help cut Europe’s dependence of imported fossil fuels, would provide Europe with a cleaner energy mix that would assist in reaching the climate change targets, that it would encourage investment and job creation in rural areas, particularly in member states with unrealised potential and that it would provide EU farmers with an additional income stream.

A further benefit, it was pointed out, was that the EU, which has a major deficiency in animal feed, would be less dependent on imported animal feed, an important co-product of domestically produced bio-ethanol and biodiesel.

Three years after the RED was adopted, the Commission proposed a reversal of that policy, because of concerns about indirect land use change – ILUC. 

Those lobbying for the change argued that EU biofuel policy was impacting adversly on food prices, that EU policy was causing land grabs and deforestation in developing countries, and that the best available science raised concerns about indirect land use change [ILUC] impacts of ‘conventional/first generation’ biofuels.

These arguments were countered by those who opposed the 2012 changes. It was pointed out that the concerns regarding ILUC factors had not fully taken into account the capacity to produce sustainable, low ILUC impact biofuels in EU member states that had underutilised capacity. Such could be the case for Portugal, for example.

Industry accused the EU of driving renewable energy investments away and into other regions of the world.

The EU legislative process came to a compromise with a revised renewables obligation. However the story does not stop there.

We now know that the claims of relationship between rising world food prices and EU renewables policies were not well based, and that the spike in commodity prices was not related to EU biofuels policy. In response to a question in the EU Parliament, the Commission itself now accepts that the emotive claims about ‘land grabs in Africa’ were without foundation.   

We also know that potential investors in EU biofuels have ‘backed off’, projects have been dropped, and jobs that could have been delivered will not materialise.

There has in recent times been a further and disturbing development in this saga.

In the middle of the debate on the revised proposals, the Commission appointed a consortium of three highly respected research consultancies – Ecofys, IIASA and E4tech – to use the Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM) to assess ILUC impacts of biofuels consumed in the EU.

This was a positive move aimed at providing policy makers with the ‘best available’ science on a contentious issue and at guiding EU 2030 energy policy.  Indeed, the Renewable Energy Directive expressly requires the Commission to base its ILUC policymaking proposals on the best available science.

The research consortium went about its business in a commendably transparent manner. In 2014, it indicated its intention to keep stakeholders informed of the outcome of its modelling early in 2015.

On 4 November last year, the research consortium indicated that the final report had been given to the EU Commission saying that it “expected the report to be published online soon”. 

It is logical to assume that the Commission would be willing to share the scientific basis for the policy direction in which it has steered the EU, particularly if the research vindicated the existing policy direction: but this has not happened.

The Commission is refusing to release the Globiom study or the insights on ILUC which it provides. 

As the Commission has set 10 February for submissions on post-2020 biofuels policy, this means that stakeholders must submit views without having the Globiom study.

The Commission claims that releasing the study would “undermine the protection of the public interest as regards international relations of the EU as a whole”.  The choice of words is hard to comprehend. 

The Globiom study is a scientific document. Its aim is to provide a dispassionate examination of a key element in public policy. It is unacceptable that the Commission can decide not to share the ‘best available science’ with those who are affected, with their elected representatives and with industry stakeholders.

Wherever one stands on the debate on biofuels, it is simply unacceptable for Members of Parliament, NGOs or industry to be denied access to a key policy instrument on a bureaucratic whim.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised a more open and transparent EU. He urged “ – let us be more transparent, …  we have nothing to hide -“.

Nothing but good can be done by letting the light of public scrutiny shine on the making of public policy. This is why the Commission should release the study without further delay.

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