Now is not the time to kiss the biofuels goodbye

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

Rapeseed is one of the main sources of biofuels in Europe. [Susanne Nilsson/Flickr]

The European Commission’s proposal to scrap the mandate for the use of biofuels and, in effect, to ‘kiss biofuels goodbye,’ is a catastrophic policy based largely on arguments that have no solid foundation, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche is a former Irish minister for environment, and is currently an advisor to Hungary’s Pannonia ethanol company.

When the proposals that led to the RED (Renewable Energy Directive) were introduced, few could have envisaged the rancorous and frequently distorted debate that was to follow.

Initially, biofuels were seen as a ‘good thing’: a strident lobby changed that.

By 2012, a UK farmers’ representative warned of EU policy makers being “bullied into a U-turn by a series of environmental and social pressure groups that, until recently, stood shoulder to shoulder with industry and praised the potential contribution of biofuels in decarbonising the transport sector”.

EU policy makers bowed to the pressure, the source of which has never been entirely clear. The Commission threw a monumental spanner into the works with its 2012 proposals and an industry that, with the right policies, could have released the untapped capacity of EU member states to produce low ILUC bio-ethanol in an environmentally sustainable way was reduced to what one industry leader called a ‘zombie industry.’

Now, as EURACTIV reported on 4 May, the Commission proposes to go a step further and to scrap the mandate for the use of biofuels and in effect to ‘kiss biofuels goodbye’.

The Commission’s ‘logic’ is impossible to fathom.  Sustainable low and zero ILUC bio-ethanol that Europe produces helps meet EU climate change targets, reduces Europe’s dependence on fossil fuel imports, helps bridge the gap that Europe has in animal feed, stimulates regional development, creates jobs, provides European farmers with a valuable additional income stream and helps Europe achieve a cleaner, lower polluting energy mix in road transport.

In addition, a vibrant ‘first generation’ European biofuel is also the best guarantee that the EU will stay ahead of the curve in developing advanced biofuels.

Why Europe should turn its back on all of this is a mystery.

Pushing all of these positives aside, in a catastrophic policy reversal based largely on arguments that have no solid foundation in science or fact, makes no sense, and is an indictment of the EU policy process.

A flawed policy process

In the 1960s, the acronym KISS, (keep it short and simple), was coined by  the US Navy.

The thesis that most policies work best if kept simple is not a bad one. Sadly it is a template that is frequently overlooked in policy formulation. It certainly does not feature often enough in EU policy-making which is frequently overly complex, multi-faceted and all too often diverted by compromises aimed at accommodating narrow individual interests in the search for consensus. The EU policy approach on biofuels has been anything but simple or straight: it is a case study in what can go wrong.

One significant flaw in EU policy on biofuels is that it failed to differentiate between ethanol and biodiesel. That had an impact in the debate that followed.

The anti-biofuel lobby took a similarly undifferentiated approach. Valid concerns about biofuel made from imported oils, in particular palm oil, were conflated to the point where all ‘1st generation based‘ biofuels– even EU produced bioethanol that had nothing to do with palm oil –  were treated as ‘evil’.

When the 2012 proposals to amend the RED were circulated, Commission staff indicated that they were confidant their undifferentiated approach would be vindicated by science – they were not.

Embarrassingly, the Globiom study, that was prepared for the Commission and which constitutes the ‘best available science’ in the matter, has reached different conclusions than those of the Commission’s in-house ‘experts’ – which may explain why it took the Commission months to release the study.

The study shows that European ethanol has low LUC impacts and can make a very strong contribution to reducing GHG emissions from transport and to achieving EU 2030 transport decarbonisation goals.

A study from Vienna University, which was also funded by the Commission, takes this issue further.  The Vienna study, which was finalised in 2014 but only made public at the end of April 2016, shows climate savings from ethanol which are higher than those shown in the Globiom study and shows that the climate benefits of EU ethanol have been vastly understated.

Like a series of earlier studies, the Globiom study, also confirmed that European ethanol has a miniscule impact food prices and a tiny impact on feed prices, further debunking the food vs fuel myth.

Turning to specifics, the Globiom study found that

  • Conventional ethanol feedstocks, such as sugar and starch crops, have lower land use change emission impacts than other biofuel feedstocks.
  • Cellulosic ethanol feedstocks similarly have a low or even positive LUC impact.
  • Land use change impacts and associated emissions can be much lower if abandoned land in the EU is used for biofuels production biofuel demand is covered by yield increases.

The Globiom study also throws light on another issue that featured in the debate – the issue of Palm oil, an issue that was given prominence by the ‘all biofuels are bad’ campaigners. The Globiom study recognises the problems of palm oil but sees its negative impacts as not attributable solely to EU biofuels. This conclusion comes as no surprise – cooking, processed foods, chocolate, cosmetics and chemicals account for close on 90% of all palm oil use, a point ignored by the anti-biofuel lobby.

While the Globiom study provides a case for either limiting or banning palm oil from the EU for all uses, it does not provide any basis for limiting the use of EU ethanol to displace fossil fuel in furtherance of climate ambitions.

Having triggered a storm, EU policy-makers are now proposing to walk away from all biofuels just when the science on which policy should be based is becoming available, a truly perverse position:  this is not the time to ‘abandon ship’.

If the EU moves in the direction that the Commission is flagging, it will:

  • Write off the potential to create tens of thousands of jobs across the EU in a sustainable rural based industry and cut existing jobs;
  • Deny Central and Eastern EU member states in particular a major opportunity to grow their rural economies and to add €billions to GDP;
  • Deny farmers an additional income stream and undermine the thousands of farmers who are currently produce feedstocks for biofuel;
  • Deliver a further body blow to Europe’s sugar industry which is already facing a major challenge from the abolition of sugar quotas;
  • Mean that Europe remains more heavily dependent on imported fossil fuel than it needs to be;
  • Condemn EU food producers to a continuing dangerous dependence on imported animal feed much of which is GMO based and some of which contains antibiotic traces;
  • And, ironically, impede EU capacity to meet its climate change targets by making the job of decarbonising road traffic that much harder.

These negative impacts will be exacerbated if the member states allow the EU ethanol sector to be ‘given away’ to South America, as the Commission is proposing to do in the Mercosur negotiations. Perversely, the EU Commission while undermining EU ethanol, is proposing to allow 600,000 tonnes of  South American sugar cane ethanol, which is connected to deforestation and associated with appalling labour practices, advantageous access to the EU market.

The Globiom study, which is the ‘best available science’, validates the case made by European ethanol producers. It would be a major folly for the EU to turn its back on the ‘best available science’  and walk away from ‘home grown’ biofuels by dropping the EU target for biofuel use in transport.

Looking forward, the Commission would be recklessly irresponsible if it fails to acknowledge the vital role that bio-ethanol blending has to play in decarbonising transport. This is not the time to kiss biofuels goodbye.

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