Commission ‘dangerously’ out of touch with reality on biofuels

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

The European Commission's biofuels policy will destroy an industry which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs across the EU. [eXtension Farm Energy Community of Practice / Flickr]

A response delivered by Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete in the European Parliament last week demonstrates just how dangerously out of touch with reality the executive is on a policy that impacts on the lives of hundreds of thousands of EU citizens, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche is a former Irish Minister for the Environment and former Minister for European Affairs and is currently an advisor to the Hungarian company Pannonia Ethanol.

A senior Commission staffer admitted that the EU executive’s biofuels policy was being formed on the basis of bureaucrats’ interpretation of public opinion rather than facts and science. This prompted Romanian independent MEP Laurentiy Rebega (ENF) to file a parliamentary question with the Commission in September.

Rebega pointed out that “peer-reviewed economic analysis suggests that Romania has a huge unrealised capacity as a producer of bioethanol which if realised fully, could produce tens of thousands of jobs, produce up to 18 billion litres of ethanol and add very significantly to Romania’s GDP”. He asked, “Has the Commission carried out any assessment as to the impact of its post-2020 proposals on Romania’s potential in this area, and in particular of the proposals’ impact on job potential and on potential farm income?” Rebega requested that the Commission “publish its calculations on both areas and outline the methodology used to reach its conclusions”.

In a response given on 25 November, Commissioner Cañete said that “the Commission intends to adopt a package of energy from renewable sources by the end of 2016, including proposals for the revision of the Directive on renewable energy and policy regarding the sustainability of bioenergy for the period after 2020”.

Cañete continued, “the Commission has already indicated that biofuels based on food crops have a limited role in decarbonising the transport sector and that they should not receive public support after 2020″.

The Commissioner goes on to say that the executive is looking at ‘”various options” for the phasing out and replacement of conventional biofuels with “more advanced” alternatives.

Cañete concluded – in a striking example of putting the cart before the horse – that when all of the deliberations within the Commission are completed, “an impact assessment analysing the impact of social, economic and environmental effects of relevant policy options” will be produced.

In what must be a first –  even for the Commission-  the executive planned to destroy an industry which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs across the EU, which supports farm incomes, which brings investment to rural areas and which could provide a much-needed boost for the economy of Romania and indeed for other EU member states. And, after the axe has fallen, the Commission will pull together an “impact assessment”.

The Commissioner’s reply is of course not  surprising. It has been clear for some time that the Commission, by hook or by crook, is set on getting rid of “first generation biofuels irrespective of science, analysis or logic”.

The statements by the Commission official which prompted the parliamentary question made it clear that the Commission intends to ignore “economic models and scientific theories” and that  “policy would be based on the Commission’s interpretation of citizens’ concerns, sometimes even if these concerns are emotive rather than factual based or scientific”.

For good measure, the Commission official added that in the Commission’s view, the first concern is a purely emotive reaction to “food versus fuel”.

This extraordinary assertion that a bureaucrats ‘hunch’ as to the state of public opinion should inform public policy like the Commissioner’s ‘non-answer’ is a stunning indication of how dangerously out of touch the Commission has become on biofuels policy.

Coming as it did a year after the FAO Director-General had called for a paradigm shift in the debate on food production, suggesting that “We need to move from the food versus fuel debate to a food and fuel debate,” the Commission’s position is all the more disturbing.

Evidently, the FAO  message  has not been picked up in the  EU Commission.

At a time when EU citizens are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the European project, the Commission’s bull-headed behaviour is a disturbing reflection of the way things were managed in one part of Europe before the Berlin wall came tumbling down.

Four days after Commissioner Cañete delivered his non-answer to MEP Rebega’s parliamentary question,  Farm Europe released its study, Producing Fuel and Feeds.

The report provides a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the impact of the development  of biofuels in the EU on agricultural land, food security, and sustainability.

The study focuses on the period 2005 – 2015, covering the years before and since the RED was enacted.

The study, which is lucid, fact based and logical, provides the latest evidence as to just how grotesquely inadequate the undifferentiated approach to biofuels that the Commission has pressing is. It also provides another debunking of the myths on food versus fuel which EU bureaucrats seem intent on propagating.

Its key findings are that:

  • Claims that  EU sourced biofuel production has caused either food price rises or reduced global food supply are false.
  • EU biofuel production has contributed to global food security,
  • The EU has increased its export capacity for cereals by 10 million tonnes during the study period.
  • EU biofuel production has reduced the EU demand for imported protein soy feed by producing 13 million tonnes of high protein non-GMO animal feed.
  • Biofuel production has made a positive contribution to a key CAP objective of keeping land in good agricultural status in order to maintain the potential of EU agriculture. Without the biofuel industry, increasing amounts of land would be lost to agriculture.
  • Shows the need for a clear distinction between EU-sourced biofuels– and biofuels made from imported palm oil and imported “waste oils”.
  • Finds that biofuels made from imported palm oil have highly damaging impacts on the climate and environment while EU-sourced biofuels have clearly positive climate, environmental and economic impacts.
  • Biofuels helped to secure farm income of € 5-7 billion, led to very significant investment in rural regions and supported 300.000 jobs.

In the words of its authors, the report “highlights the need for EU decision-makers to promote a fact-based strategic approach when it comes to biofuels and provides evidence on the capacity of EU biofuels to be a lever for both environmental sustainability and economic development in rural areas without any detrimental effects”.

It will be interesting to see whether this report will penetrate the thinking in the Commission in any way, or whether the College of Commissioners and their staff will choose to remain impervious to facts, to economics and to science as has been their choice to date.

Subscribe to our newsletters