How to avoid another decade of biofuels headaches

What to do with biofuels? This simple question has given many European policymakers huge headaches for a decade now. Two subsequent, dragged-out legal processes to first promote them (2006-2009), and then to contain food-based ones (2012-2015) left no-one happy. NGOs warned that the problems were still not solved, while industry maintained that all investment security was gone.

In a few weeks, the European Commission will come with its proposals for the period 2021-2030, as part of its huge energy policy package. This piece sets out what we think can be done to avoid another decade of trouble and create the necessary sustainable outlook.

First, stop counting land-based biofuels – especially biodiesel – towards climate or renewable energy targets, ultimately by 2030. Why? Because governments can currently count them as zero-emissions, whereas the European Commission’s own Globiom research shows that biodiesel on average leads to 80% more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil diesel. What about ethanol then, typically 30% better for the climate than fossil petrol according to the same study? Well, this is where land use efficiency comes in. If we decide to use land to produce energy and cut carbon emissions, let’s do it wisely. Solar cells deliver around 100 times more useful energy per hectare than bioenergy; and since it’s truly zero-carbon energy, logically it delivers a carbon reduction per hectare around 300 times greater than bioethanol. Just to make land efficiency tangible: replacing Europe’s diesel and petrol with biofuels would take roughly all of Europe’s arable land. What’s more, land and food are not renewable; you can only use them once, and the more you use, the more expensive they get. All this is in contrast with wind and solar energy that get cheaper the larger the deployment gets.

These days it’s relevant to state that this is not about Europe telling member states what to do. There is nothing that would stop France, for instance, from having its farmers grow rapeseed for biodiesel if it wants to. Europe just needs to stop pretending this contributes to its climate and renewable energy ambitions.

Second, phase in better forms of renewable energy in transport; like green electricity, but also forms of bioenergy that are not land-intensive like waste and residues. There is potential, sure, but it is not more than a few percentage points of expected fuel use in 2030.

Third, only set such a target for 2025, not 2030. In 2007 the Commission proposed a 10% renewable energy target, 13 years ahead of time; the root cause of the headaches mentioned above. We really don’t know all that much about what types of advanced biofuels might work in 14 years’ time. Let’s therefore learn lessons and only set a modest target for 2025, review whether it works as intended in five years’ time, and then act on 2030. This is in line with the recommendation of the ‘Biofrontiers’ project we were a part of, together with the advanced bioenergy industry.

Fourth, make the phase-in performance-based; in other words, use the Fuel Quality Directive’s carbon-based approach instead of the Renewable Energy Directive’s quantity-based approach. Again, let’s learn the lessons from the 2020 debacle: pushing quantity over quality is a bad idea.

Making mistakes is only human; but so is learning from them. In three weeks’ time we will know whether that has happened.


Jonas Ericson's picture


Dear Jos,

An important fact, that is little known or scrutinised, is that there are 35 million hectars of abandoned agricultural land in Europe (Eurostat) and this total is increasing.

This abandonment is the largest threat towards biodiversity in Europe and it is extremely urgent to find new crops for this land before it is planted with trees. 50 % of the redlisted species are dependent on continued agriculture. The problem is that there is a surplus of land and a lot of farmland is no longer necessary. Sadly, it is the most biodiverse farms that are abandoned. Finding new crops for this land is essential if we should keep these farms alive and save the biodiversity. Producing ethanol and biogas from this land has a potential to substitute 25-30 % of Europe's transport energy. Simple off-the-shelf production methods for biogas and ethanol from cropland result in CO2-reductions of over 90 %.

For many years yet, electric vehicles will only be able to fulfill a small proportion of the transport need - even if you reduce transport as much as possible. Furthermore, for very many years yet the, electricity provided in most member states will result in much larger emissions than using good biofuels.

Opposing biofuels currently means promoting oil - and increasingly unconventional oil as shale oil and tar sand oil, but also deep sea and arctic oil. Instead we need to promote the good biofuels from the cropland we urgently need to re-cultivate

Jonas Ericson
City of Stockholm

Ariel Brunner (Senior Head of Policy at BirdLife Europe)'s picture


Mr Ericson's comment is highly misleading and based on obvious misunderstanding of what is happening to European biodiversity. Virtually no red listed species are likely to benefit from expansion of energy crops. The land abandonment issue is mostly about species dependent on extensively grazed natural grasslands scrubbing up. Planting energy crops would make things worse. Further more, most current biomass expansion is happening through agricultural intensification or indeed the destruction of natural habitats such as extensive grasslands (we have extensively documented such cases, including inside Natura 2000 sites). Note that according to the recent EEA and EC reviews agriculture intensification is the main cause of biodiversity loss in the EU (and a host of other problems such as soil degradation, water pollution etc).
Finally, the claim on a huge pool of abandoned land is completely off the mark, see a study we have commissioned which found a maximum of little over 1m ha of "abandoned land" that can be dedicated to energy crops with relative enviornmental safety

Ariel Brunner
Senior Head of Policy
BirdLife Europe and Central asia

Jonas Ericson's picture


Mr Brunner is ignoring the fact that the farmers on the biodiversity-rich farms need an income and gives no solution to the fact that the economy is forcing ever increasing species-rich areas out of agriculture. Grazing together with the mosaic-landscape caused by farming is the prerequisite for this biodiversity, but a decent income is the prerequisite for the farmer to keep on this practise.

Biofuels from crops on these farms offers a good way of both keeping these farmers in business, keep the farmland in shape in case we one day will again need it (eg. when we can no longer use fossil fuels for fertilizers and pesticides), reduce the climate emissions and to give these farmers a possibility to continue their traditional mix of livestock and cropfarming, preserving the biodiversity.

Finding out the amount of land available is not a totally simple task (see eg. the IEEP Land scoping study 2015) and your policy note have obviously overseen vast areas of available land. In Sweden alone there is 800 000 ha surplus farmland available (Swedish board of Agriculture Rapport 2012:35), in addition to the 385 000 abandoned since 1990. There is no reason to believe that the situation is different in the rest of EU. Except for UK, the Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark, all EU-member states are increasingly abandoning land.

So I ask you to embrace the fact that also if intense agriculture in monocultures is highly problematic from an environmental viewpoint - traditional agriculture is not, and that it offers a large opportunity to reduce the climate emissions. So I ask you help developing the policies that will save our agricultural biodiversity (50 % of the redlisted species, 75 % of red-listed Swedish birds) and to promote these biofuels that reduce climate emissions with more than 90 % - i.e. far better than most electric vehicles do.

Jane tull's picture


People have burning coal at least 5500 years,fossil fuels has mad people super strong and powerfull. Doomsday biofuels destroy everybody everything the whole Earth. Biofuels destroy all people's solutions to all our problems by destroying the world's plants all our resources. Finally we had it all with our resources among acumalated knowledge but while having and doing that some foolish and bad people destroyed some of all human race needs and wants! There's little time left to stop doomsday biofuels!

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