EU farmers chief: Commission is ‘ultra-orthodox’ on biofuels’ sustainability

“The Commission is taking a very ultra-orthodox approach to the sustainability criteria,” Pesonen, secretary-general of the EU farmers and cooperatives association (COPA-COGECA) said. [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

This article is part of our special report RED III: Europe’s reality check.

The European Commission’s insistence on capping conventional biofuels is “ultra-orthodox” as it deprives farmers of a potential market outside the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) while simultaneously hindering agriculture’s environmental potential, the head of EU farmers’ association told EURACTIV in an interview.

“The Commission is taking a very ultra-orthodox approach to the sustainability criteria,” Pekka Pesonen, secretary-general of the EU farmers and cooperatives association (COPA-COGECA) said.

The EU executive is currently revisiting the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) as part of the EU Green Deal to decarbonise the EU transport sector among others.

Although all stakeholders admit that the future of mobility lies in electric cars, the EU has admitted that by 2030, Europe’s cars will still drive mostly on oil.

The thorny issue is how Europe will be able to decarbonise the sector by 2030 in a realistic and sustainable manner, considering that vehicles with internal combustion engines will still be prevalent on EU roads.

Critics suggest that although the executive acknowledges that electrification will not come before 2030, it lacks a credible strategy to decarbonise transport by 2030.

Crop-based biofuels, like biodiesel and bioethanol, are seen by many as an alternative but the Commission seems to insist on a 7% cap, citing sustainability reasons, such as indirect land use change (ILUC).

“If we stick to the 7% cap, we lose a potential market outside the CAP. And that’s why we encourage European institutions to revise it upwards, we are not going to dominate the market, but the reality is that we need the conventional biofuel sector in a sustainable manner. And we need advanced biofuels on top of each other,” Pesonen said.

Pesonen added that these artificial limitations do not respect the “real world” and result in creating a bottleneck for the sector to utilise its full potential.

“It’s a valuable addition to crop rotation, we can actually reduce the use of mineral fertilisers to a certain extent, and it actually provides a valuable addition to the agricultural activity,” he said.

“In the forest side, we have a very good track record in increasing our forest cover and also carbon stock. And in fact, we have heavier timber in our forests, thanks to the management practices,” he added.

Regarding forests, EURACTIV was informed that the Confederation of European Forest Owners and COPA-COGECA have sent a letter to Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans warning that the ongoing debate over RED II revision and forest biomass does not reflect the success stories on the ground.

Yet, Pesonen said such a market could potentially generate some additional income for farmers: “Because economics in agriculture is not in the best of conditions at the moment.”

Food versus fuel

Environmental NGOs have long argued that relying on crop-based biofuels leads to a hike in food prices, considering that crops are being used to fill cars’ tanks rather than to feed people.

NGO Transport and Environment in 2017 published a review of several scientific studies suggesting that biofuels increase food prices.

On the other hand, the European Commission’s 2020 Renewable Energy Progress Report says that in recent years, no correlation has been observed between food prices and biofuel demand.

“Any impact on food prices is small compared to other dynamics in the global food market. Most member states did not observe any impacts on prices due to increased bioenergy demand within their countries,” the report reads.

Commenting on the food versus fuel debate, Pesonen said not only the food prices will not increase, but the food sector stands to benefit.

“We have actually brought in volumes of energy-rich oil component that is mainly used by the food industry in other forms like foodstuffs processing,” he said, referring to the supply oils, biodiesel, raw material and plant oils.

Not a good governance story

The current RED II legislation process has not been considered a good governance story.

Its impact assessment was rejected twice by the Regulatory Scrutiny Board (RSB), an independent body within the Commission that advises the College of Commissioners.

The Commission never went back to RSB for a third assessment as it was not obliged to and instead moved on with the RED II legislation.

But the first impact assessment of RED III was also recently rejected by the RSB.

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