A Major Moment for Ethanol in Europe

FROM THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE: Emmanuel Desplechin, secretary general of the European Renewable Ethanol Association, talks about current European policy and what it means for ethanol.
By Emmanuel Desplechin | August 18, 2017

The next few months are sure to be a crucial period for the European ethanol industry, as European Union policymakers grapple with new legislation that could phase out crop-based biofuels after 2020.
The moment is especially important as the EU tries to assert its leadership in the global fight against climate change after the U.S. government’s decision to abandon the Paris Agreement. But even as it touts its continued commitment to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the European Commission is making a strange push with its Renewable Energy Directive II to ensure a dominant place for fossil fuel in the EU’s 2030 transport energy mix.

The Commission’s proposal is now in the hands of EU member states and the European Parliament. The EU’s legislature is considering amendments to the proposal in its various committees, leading up to a full plenary vote by the end of the year. And some policymakers are waking up to the fact that sustainable biofuels need to remain in the EU’s decarbonization toolkit.

That’s especially true for EU ethanol, which keeps improving its ability to reduce GHG emissions. In 2016, European ethanol use delivered an average of more than 66 percent GHG savings over fossil petrol, according to new certified data from European ethanol producers. The number represents the latest of several annual increases in the climate-change-fighting potential of European ethanol, which has shown improved performance for five straight years.

The statistics confirm that renewable ethanol plays a crucial role in achieving EU climate ambitions—and is only getting better at it. Instead of pushing to phase out this sustainable European biofuel, the European Commission should be extolling ethanol as a homegrown source of clean-burning transport energy.

Remember: Road transport accounts for 20 percent of EU emissions but is still 95 percent reliant on oil. It is the one sector in which even the European Commission admits the EU is lagging behind when it comes to decarbonization.

Key members of the European Parliament (MEP) clearly realize this. MEPs on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee in June adopted an opinion on the European Strategy for Low Emission Mobility, and showed clear support for keeping crop-based biofuels such as renewable ethanol as part of the EU transport energy mix.

In their opinion, MEPs sent a strong signal that Europe should focus on phasing out fossil fuels as well as biofuels that drive deforestation, such as those made with palm oil, but should not sacrifice sustainably produced European biofuels that have high GHG savings and low risk of indirect land use change.

That view is in line with the overwhelming majority of Europeans who, as polls show, believe EU policy should promote biofuels with high GHG savings, like renewable European ethanol. At a time when Europeans are worried about climate change, urban air quality and economic growth, we need the most effective tools if we want to make better progress toward decarbonizing transport.

Like the members of the Parliament’s ENVI committee, ordinary citizens believe the EU should not throw the baby out with the bathwater by abandoning good European biofuels such as ethanol, leaving European transport reliant on fossil fuel—still more than 90 percent reliant in 2030 if the European Commission’s proposal is accepted.

Even at a  time when European citizens are hugely concerned about air quality in the wake of the “dieselgate” scandals, there is support for using ethanol blends to reduce emissions. A poll taken in the U.K.—where the government is proposing to ban the sale of cars with diesel and petrol engines by 2040—82 percent of motorists supported using E10 ethanol blend as a method of lowering transport emissions.

There is a better way forward—one that increases the EU’s level of ambition for renewables in transport, maintains policy continuity on biofuels in order to better ensure investment in new technology such as advanced biofuels, strengthens sustainability requirements, and promotes the use of conventional biofuels with high GHG savings.

That is the road that Europe should take in its energy policy—one that clearly maintains the EU's place as a global leader.

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