Europe Needs More Than Words to Decarbonize Transport

ePURE's secretary general outlines the European ethanol organization's discussion points in the face of Commission proposals that would cap crop-based biofuels. He writes the Global Scene column appearing in the May print edition.
By Emmanuel Desplechin | April 21, 2017

When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport, the European Union is pretty good at talking the talk. But walking the walk? Not so much.

Despite agreeing to ambitious climate and energy goals that require 18 to 19 percent emission reduction and 15 percent renewable energy in transport, it is now threatening to turn its back on one of its best options: conventional biofuels like renewable European ethanol. The European Parliament and member states are considering a proposal from the European Commission to phase out crop-based biofuels, capping their use at 3.8 percent of road transport energy in 2030.

Even the Commission admits it has a long way to go to meet its goals for renewable energy use in transport. In a recent report, the Commission congratulated member states for efforts to boost renewables in most sectors, but lamented the slow progress in transport. The transport sector makes up 20 percent of EU emissions and is 95 percent reliant on oil. To many, it is a problem of the Commission’s own making, considering its record of biofuels policy U-turns that undermined implementation of renewables policy in member states. Europe needs a realistic mix of renewable energy, including sustainably produced European ethanol, if it wants to achieve its climate goals.

The Commission rationalizes its decision to go in the other direction on two shaky pillars: that biofuels compete with food and there is no public support.

The idea that the EU biofuels policy impacts global food supply or hunger is a myth. Most studies show EU biofuels policy contributed little to food and cereal price increases between 2007-’10, and not much since. The World Bank found food price increases are linked more to the crude oil market than biofuels. Indeed, biofuels production increased more than 70 percent since 2008 in Europe, while global food prices decreased 20 percent.

In a 2015 report, the Commission confirmed EU biofuels policy has not led to negative impacts on food prices, nor will it by 2020. The truth is that global prices of cereals, the largest EU ethanol feedstock, declined nearly 40 percent in the past decade. The latest Commission report on renewable energy progress said the effect of ethanol consumption in Europe on food prices is “negligible.”

Europeans appear to understand. They overwhelmingly support conventional crop-based biofuels and believe EU policy should encourage them, per the EU’s own statistics agency Eurobarometer and a recent independent survey. More than 69 percent of Europeans say conventional biofuels should be encouraged, while just 15 percent think they should not, the recent EuroPulse poll found.

What is at stake?

“We know what the outcome will be if this proposed policy is implemented: Europe will likely be more dependent on imported energy, and most likely not just on any energy, but on oil,” said Jan Koninckx, global business director biofuels, DuPont Industrial Biosciences, at a recent conference on decarbonizing EU transport.

Or as Swedish Environment Minister Karolina Skog put it at the same event, EU policymakers need to make better use of existing technology to reduce emissions, even as the push toward advanced sources continues. “What we see in the short term is that biofuel is really important and we cannot neglect it.”

Clearly there is a better alternative to turning our back on the promise of biofuels—one that leads to more success in achieving Europe’s climate and energy goals. Instead of phasing out conventional biofuels, the EU should prioritize sustainable ones that benefit the climate, air quality, engine performance and agriculture.

The European ethanol industry is now making that case to policymakers. Rather than another innovation-killing policy U-turn, the EU can set higher goals, ensure policy continuity and maintain the 7 percent contribution of biofuels from arable crops to renewables. It can strengthen sustainability and traceability requirements for all biomass to ensure a level playing field. It should promote sustainable conventional biofuels beyond current and proposed caps, promote advanced biofuels and encourage higher biofuels blends.

With the International Renewable Energy Agency recently calling for a tenfold increase in the use of biofuels to help climate change, now is not the time for the EU to turn back on its climate ambitions.

Author: Emmanuel Desplechin
Secretary General
ePURE, the European Renewable Ethanol Association