Late publication of biofuels study raises questions

In 2012, the Commission made an unexplained U-turn in its biofuel policy. [The Open University/Flickr]

The European Commission has finally published the Globiom Study on the indirect land use change [ILUC], which it had kept secret and unavailable during the public consultation period for the Renewable Energy Directive for the period 2020-2030.

The 261-page study was commissioned in 2013. A consortium of three respected companies, including Ecofys and IIASA, investigated the ILUC effect, combining experiences in the renewable energy sectors and land use change modeling.

The study was commissioned because of doubts over a 2012 U-turn by the EU executive with regard to the promotion of the biofuel industry.

In 2009, the European Union launched an ambitious program to promote the use of renewable fuels in EU transport. By 2020, 10% of energy used in transport in each member state has to be produced from renewable energy sources, such as biofuels, biogas, electricity or other renewable sources.

But in 2012, the Commission did an about-face, announcing a major shift in biofuel policy, saying it plans to limit crop-based biofuels to 5% of transport fuel by 2020, after campaigners said existing rules take food out of people’s mouths.

A blow for Eastern Europe?

EU data for 2011 showed that biofuels made from food crops provide about 4.5% of EU transport fuel. This is why the 2012 U-turn was seen as an attempt to maintain the status quo, and to prevent member states from Eastern Europe, who have great potential to develop biofuel industries, to threaten producers from older EU states.

According to experts, countries like Hungary and Bulgaria could have profited immensely, had the 10% target been maintained. But strangely, those countries remained silent. Instead, biofuel producers from Western Europe complained of the U-turn. Indeed, many of them had made important investments to meet the 10% target.

The Commission argued that the promotion of biofuels had led to price increases of food in the developing countries, and of land use changes, leading to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

In the words of the authors of the Globiom study, the report seeks  “to provide new insights to the European Commission and other stakeholders about … indirect carbon and land impacts from biofuels consumed in the EU, with more details on production processes and representation of individual feedstocks than was done before’.

According to the central findings of the study:

  • Increased demand for ethanol made from sugar and starch crops and cellulosic biomass can be met with low impacts on land use change and low resultant land use change emissions.
  • Demand for sugar and starch crops for ethanol production can be met without impact on food prices.
  • Conventional ethanol feedstocks, such as starch crops and sugar, have much lower land use change and emissions 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; or if yield increases occur as a result of biofuels demand.

The study reaches an uncompromising conclusion on the use of palm oil – an issue that drew a lot of attention during the biofuel debate – suggesting that the most immediate way to limit land use change impacts and reduce associated emissions globally would be to halt peat drainage in Malaysia and Indonesia for palm oil production.

In fact, if the EU was to play a significant role in reducing the accelerated global demand that has driven palm oil production, it could ban palm oil as feed stock for biofuels and curtail its use in other areas such as cosmetics, confectionary products and food.

Overall the Globiom study demonstrates that the Commission, in adopting an undifferentiated approach to biofuels and ignoring the fact that different feedstock produce different impacts, has created a ‘one size fits all approach’ that does not accord with reality, and that suppresses products which could contribute to climate mitigation while, perversely, supporting biofuels which are harmful.

Dick Roche, a former Environment Minister of Ireland, who is now a lobbyist for the biofuel business, welcomed the publication of the report, although belated. But he regretted the missed opportunities and questioned the way the EU executive does its business.

“Not only has the Commission’s crude approach miss opportunities, but it has inflicted great damage,” said Roche.

According to Roche, since 2012 the investment climate in biofuels has been “poisoned”. Projects that could have produced jobs, helped the EU meet its greenhouse gas targets, supported farmers in EU regions where per capita earnings are lowest and helped Europe to be a little less dependent on imported fossil fuels, had been lost.

In addition to the fact that the executive had to keep the study secret from stakeholders, including MEPs, for many months, its attitude raises “fundamental questions about the way the EU Commission does its business”, Roche said.

In particular, he regretted that the study was kept secret in the process of formulating the EU’s next steps in this area, as the public consultation period for the Renewable Energy Directive for the period 2020-2030 ran from 18 November 2015, until 10 February, 2016.

“The Commission had possession of the Globiom Study during the consultation period and decided against releasing it even though its content clearly relates to the consultation,” Roche said, recalling that interested parties who asked about the study had been fobbed off with sometimes ludicrous explanations.

Parliament was ‘kept in the dark’.

Just how anxious officials were to keep the study ‘under wraps’ is illustrated in a disingenuous reply given in the European Parliament by Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete on 2 March to a Parliamentary Question tabled in December last by MEP Norica Nicolai (ALDE, Romania).

Cañete gave a tortured written response to a straightforward question drawing the MEP’s attention to an impact assessment published in 2012 and promising that “Should a specific study not be available in the European Parliament library, the Commission can examine its archives and share the available paper or electronic copies of those studies.” The response omitted making any reference to the study that by 2 March had been in the European Commission’s possession for at least seven months.

The December parliamentary question from Nicolai was only one of a string of questions on biofuel-related issues that have been tabled in the Parliament in recent months.

MEP José Inácio Faria (ALDE, Portugal) also raised the issue of the hidden report, urging Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who had  promised a more open and transparent EU, to deliver.

Better law-making requires more transparency

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.

Letters signed by MEPs from across the political spectrum were sent to Juncker requesting him to live up to his commitment and release the study. Legal pressure on the issue was coming from industry and, laterally, from the NGO sector.

“The Commission will probably deny that these actions ‘released’ the study. Objectively, however, all of the evidence is that the Commission wanted to bury a study which had come up with a series of ‘inconvenient truths’. That approach is unacceptable and requires investigation,” Roche said.

Norica Nicolai told she was pleased to find out that the Commission has decided to release to the public the study, but added that she would have been happier if this would have been done earlier, “because it is the right and natural thing to do”. Instead, it appeared that the publication resulted from the pressure of the written questions, and letters sent by her and her colleagues, she added.

Commission: Ongoing work explains the delay

Asked to comment why the Globiom study was released with a delay of many months, the executive downplayed the importance of the study, saying that it was carried out by external experts and did not reflect the position of the European Commission.

The adoption and entering into force the Directive (EU) 2015/1513 made it necessary for the executive to broaden the scope of the analysis in order to account for the new regulatory provisions. This work is currently ongoing and explains the delay in the publication of the study”, a Commission expert told EURACTIV.

The Directive (EU) 2015/1513 was adopted on 9 September 2015. It amends Directive 98/70/EC relating the quality of petrol and diesel fuels and Directive 2009/28/EC on the promotion of the use of energy resources.

“The Commission’s work on gathering and analysis of the latest available scientific evidence and available research results on ILUC in relation to production of biofuels consumed in the EU is ongoing and is not limited to one study”, said Commission spokesperson Anna-Kaisa Itkonen.

She explained that as required by the Directive (EU) 2015/1513, this analysis will cover, as far as possible, all available scientific evidence and research results with relevance for the Commission’s assessment of ILUC impacts of the EU biofuel policy.

The Commission’s 2012 legislative proposal which resulted in adoption of the Directive (EU) 2015/1513, was based on analysis of different studies undertaken and comparison of the results of different modelling exercises carried out, using mainly but not exclusively the work of the International Food Policy Institute (IFPRI), Itkonen explained.

Asked by EURACTIV to comment, Dick Roche said that the European Commission’s explanations made no sense. He pointed out that in November 2015, the three companies that authored the study posted a note on the web saying that they had presented the completed study to the Commission and that it was hoped that the study would be “published soon”.

“Given the debate in the UK it is more important than ever that the Commission operates in an open and transparent manner,” he said.

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