The vast majority of European citizens believe that food-based biofuels should be promoted by the EU, according to a new industry-funded opinion poll published today (23 January).
Last July, the European Commission published a European Strategy for Low-Emission Mobility proposing that food-based biofuels be gradually phased out and replaced with “more advanced biofuels” [See background].
The proposal triggered strong reactions in the biofuels industry, which blamed the Commission for being “prejudiced” and questioned the scientific basis of its proposal.
Biofuels and public opinion
In addition to environmental concerns such as the indirect land use change (ILUC), according to the EU executive, the decision to phase out conventional biofuels after 2020 was also driven by public opinion’s stance on first generation biofuels coming from food, particularly from crops such as sugar beet, corn, and wheat.
Speaking at a conference last October, Marie Donnelly, the director of Renewables, Research, and Energy Efficiency at DG Energy, said “I’m sorry but it’s as simple as that […] the first emotive reaction was that you take food off the table of a poor starving child in Africa and you put it into the tank to burn it.”
“We are taking food from people who are starving elsewhere in the world ….we have not succeeded in changing that position in the minds of many people in Europe,” Donnelly added.
Reacting to this statement, Charles-Albert Peers, president of the European renewable ethanol association (ePURE), told euractiv.com that the only EU-wide citizens’ opinion survey ever conducted on biofuels showed that the vast majority of Europeans feel that sustainable biofuels should be encouraged.
“Is the Commission out of touch with what the public actually want and ignoring yet again its own work?” he wondered.
According to the Eurobarometer survey, which was published by the Commission in 2010, approximately 72% of Europeans believed that biofuels should be encouraged and 20% held the opposite view.
Regarding the sustainable biofuels, in particular, 83% of EU citizens replied that sustainable biofuels should be encouraged.
“Only one European in ten disagrees and seven percent lack an opinion,” the survey noted.
“Misreading” of public opinion
According to the new EuroPulse poll, which was carried out by German survey firm Dalia on behalf of the ethanol industry association (ePURE), the vast majority of EU citizens still back the use of conventional biofuels.
“More than 69% of Europeans surveyed say conventional biofuels should be encouraged, while just 15% think they should not, according to the of 11,283 respondents in 28 EU countries,” the survey stressed, underlining that the opposition to biofuels decreased further compared to the 2010 Eurobarometer poll – dropping from 20% to 15%.
Commenting on the results of the survey, the Secretary General of ePURE, Emmanuel Desplechin attacked the EU executive saying that its proposal threatens to remove “one of the EU’s best options for reducing greenhouse gases and decarbonising transport”.
“Commission policy should be based on science and evidence rather than on a misreading of public opinion,” Desplechin emphasised, and added that the European ethanol had 64% GHG savings compared to petrol.
Contacted by euractiv.com, an EU spokesperson said that the replacement of conventional biofuels with more advanced biofuels would address the indirect land use change (ILUC) as well as ensure an increase of consumption of fossil fuels is avoided.
“Concerns of investors have been taken into account by proving time to adjust to the required changes,” the EU official noted, adding that different stakeholder groups, including the biofuel industry, were involved in the work on the update of the input data and the methodology used for the calculation of the greenhouse gas emissions and emission savings of biofuels.
“Biofuel industry was invited to all workshops on this subject. All participants, including biofuel industry, were also given equal opportunity to provide written comments in advance and after the workshops,” the EU spokesperson stressed, emphasising that the data on EU biofuel processes “comes from, or is checked against, biofuels industry sources and none comes from the oil or car industries”.
The European Commission published a European Strategy for Low-Emission Mobility on 20 July, emphasising the need to decarbonise the transport sector as part of an EU-wide goal to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40% by 2030.
The transport sector currently accounts for 25% of Europe’s total GHG emissions, according to the EU executive.
The Commission proposed a “limited” role for food-based biofuels in decarbonising the transport sector and said those should no longer receive support after 2020.
The executive stressed that food-based biofuels should be gradually phased out and replaced with “more advanced biofuels” which do not compete with food crops – like wood residues or organic waste – or crops grown specifically for energy.