The European Commission’s proposal for a gradual phase-out of conventional biofuels was based on public opinion, an EU official admitted.
Last July, the EU executive 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 ethanol industry, which blamed the Commission for being “prejudiced”.
Listening to society
Speaking at a conference last Wednesday (12 October) in the European Parliament, Marie Donnelly, Director of Renewables, Research, and Energy Efficiency in the Commission’s DG Energy, explained the reasons behind the decision to phase out the first generation biofuels.
Donnelly noted that policy makers and politicians should take account of the view of society.
“We cannot just be led by economic models and scientific theories […] we have to be very sensitive to the reality of citizens’ concerns, sometimes even if these concerns are emotive rather than factual based or scientific,” she stressed, adding that the first concern regarding conventional biofuels is a purely emotive reaction to “food versus fuel”.
“There are many people in Europe who feel that if we take food and put in our tanks and cars, we are taking food from people who are starving elsewhere in the world,” she emphasised.
She underlined that the EU executive had done studies that showed the impact of its policy options.
“But don’t confuse me with facts, I believe what I believe, but we have not succeeded in changing that position in the minds of many people in Europe. This is the reality.”
Indirect land use
The Commission official also spoke about the much-discussed Globium study, which was commissioned by the executive to draw a line under the controversy surrounding the so-called Indirect Land Use Change of biofuels or ILUC.
The executive was criticised for the delayed publication of this report, which found that ethanol had a low ILUC.
EURACTIV.com asked Donnelly why the report was made public only after the end of the consultation process.
“First of all, we do many studies in the Commission and we make them available when we have reviewed them and we are sure that we at least can make them public”, she replied, adding that in this case, the Commission made it clear that it was not its own study.
“We did pay it but we were not bound by its result.”
Referring to ILUC, she stressed that it was not a science as it cannot be measured and that if two different scientists measure it, they would come up with different results.
“When it comes to assessing direct emissions, it’s the scientific criteria of sustainability, we can feel them, we can touch them, and measure them”, she noted, underlining that it is not the case for ILUC.
“You cannot realistically establish a policy that depends on an unstable calculation like that and we cannot base our regulation on that, as problems will arise.”
“We want to have stable scientific sustainability criteria: we would like to have very clear political and policy choices with regard to the normative challenges of greenhouse savings, whatever the figures are, and when it comes to emissions coming from other parts of the world we want everybody to follow COP21 to adopt and implement and report,” she said.
Asked by EURACTIV why the Commission did not differentiate ethanol from other biofuels like biodiesel, considering that it has a lower climate impact, she said: “Because both of them are coming from food”.
“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. That’s why it’s almost impossible to differentiate biodiesel from bioethanol because they are both coming from food products.”
Charles-Albert Peers, President of the European renewable ethanol association (ePURE), said:
“The Commission claims that a phase-out of conventional, or what it has called ‘food-based’, biofuels is what the public want - yet the only EU-wide citizens opinion survey ever conducted on biofuels, which was published by the Commission itself, showed that 83% 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?”
“NGO concerns about food vs fuel have been totally debunked: since the EU introduced its biofuels policy, global food prices have actually dropped while global biofuels production has significantly increased. The Commission recognised this in its own Renewable Energy Progress Report. Other myths blaming EU biofuels policy for causing land-grabs in Africa were also proven wrong because not a single drop of fuel ethanol has ever been imported into the EU from such African biofuel projects accused of land grabbing,” he added.
“European ethanol has low indirect land use change risks and high certified greenhouse gas savings— 64 percent compared to fossil fuel — and is the type of low carbon fuel that Europe should promote. Any phase-out of ethanol will simply rob transport of the chance to use a credible green alternative to petrol,” he concluded.
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.