Biofuels: A Market of Political Opportunities

By Robert Vierhout | December 27, 2010
In Europe, much more than in the United States, green (but not just) non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are engaged loudly and aggressively in the biofuel debate. For several years now, a number of NGOs have repeatedly called for stopping governmental support of biofuels. Very vocal during the food versus fuel debate two years ago, they picked up the indirect land use change (ILUC) topic immediately as their new banner to wave. A high degree of professionalism characterizes the way NGOs operate in the public domain: glossy anti-biofuel publications, many public events and scientific studies. The kind and frequency of actions also reveal that a lot of funding is behind today's NGOs. The innocent spectator seeing how committed these groups appear to be in fighting biofuel policies could come to the conclusion that they are sincere in their beliefs and goals. Recent academic work provides some interesting insight into what actually motivates NGOs in the biofuel debate. Recently two researchers of the UK University of Essex published the results of their research titled "Battles over Biofuels in Europe: NGOs and the Politics of Markets" by Sarah Pilgrim and Mark Harvey. Their most significant conclusion is that the development of NGO policy on biofuels has been driven more by narrow political opportunities for influence than by broader and more coherent policy responses to global climate change or economic development, or indeed rigorous assessment of the scientific evidence. The mere fact that governments adopted detailed and tailored policies and programs on biofuels including mandates, targets and sustainability criteria show the biofuel market has been politicized. In this context it is irrelevant whether the driver for government involvement is decarbonising transport, as in Europe, or decreasing dependency on oil, as in Brazil and the U.S. Because the market became so political, NGOs saw an easy opportunity to "engage and affect the process of market information." Europe became the most vulnerable region given the importance that is given to greenhouse gas emission savings and the scientific controversies over the level of saving that can be achieved by biofuels. NGOs used this controversy to improve their profile and visibility. The researchers included some revealing quotes from NGOs in their work such as this one that makes clear how "science" is used by NGOs: "I think the actual premise of Searchinger is sound Now I don't know the ins and outs of his model. I just have not had the capacity, and I suspect that of a lot of NGOs-we don't have the capacity to spend a lot of time pulling apart papers like that." The article is a must for all regulators and politicians. It would increase their savviness on how to deal with the claims made by NGOs on biofuel policy. Too many EU regulators and politicians have been very politically correct when they were, and still are, confronted by the NGO view on biofuel policy. The mere fact that one is dealing with an NGO doesn't mean its view needs to be taken on-board without hesitation. The work of Pilgrim and Harvey has clearly demonstrated that NGOs and their claims against biofuels deserve caution. A very recent public opinion survey also came with remarkable results on the public's view on biofuels. Part of a wider survey on biotechnology, two questions on biofuels delivered evidence that a large majority of Europeans (72 percent) believe biofuels should be encouraged. When asked specifically about sustainable biofuels, the survey shows that Europeans are even more supportive-83 percent believe sustainable biofuels should be encouraged. What better evidence can we have to demonstrate that public support for biofuels does exist-contrary to what many NGOs want us to believe? It is a strong message that politicians cannot ignore if they are operating in the political market of biofuels. Author: Robert Vierhout Secretary-general, ePURE