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  • Finally the recognition – but still lots of difficult questions

    Opinion by Jos Dings - T&E directorAfter almost two years of delay, it now seems that the European Commission is indeed going to do something about indirect land-use change caused by growing crops for biofuels. And a delay it has been. Faithful readers of the Bulletin must have noted our regular coverage of the true avalanche of reports, studies and positions by generally very cautious bodies like the OECD and the FAO, pointing out the big risks and dangers of biofuels if handled without proper care.

    Thanks to the Commission seemingly getting its act together (finally), we are soon about to enter a different phase – a more democratic political process involving the European Parliament and national ministers, with all the associated mudslinging – hopefully leading to a new EU biofuels policy in the not-too-distant future.

    For years, biofuels were seen as a convenient way out of transport’s climate conundrum: a fuel assumed to be low-carbon, compatible with vehicle engines and fuel pumps, and grown in fields, which not only feels environmentally friendly but allows spending on fuel to be diverted from oil imports to domestic farmers. All based on the assumption that biofuel CO2 in the exhaust was absorbed through the plants’ growth, so did not really count. Unfortunately these assumptions have proved to be only part of the story – it overlooked the fact that taking out the rainforest to make way for the palm tree was not exactly carbon-neutral to begin with. So by now the only thing we know for sure is that biofuels emit the same amount of CO2 when burnt as fossil fuels. What happens before that, all we can say is: it depends.

    Anyway, looking beyond the upcoming negotiations, it seems reasonably clear we won’t be scaling up the use of biofuels in Europe massively – unless of course some miracle, clean and affordable, solution appears that has so far proven elusive. Oil is not the alternative of course, whether we manage to keep dirtier fuels, such as those derived from tar sands, out of Europe or not (that’s another big fight to be continued next year). In short, the prospect that we can ‘decarbonise our hydrocarbons’ is getting very bleak indeed, not least because of the stubborn refusal of the oil and biofuel industries to endorse legislation to achieve it.

    That begs the question: if oil and biofuels are busy ruling themselves out, what then? Should we leave behind the technology-neutrality mantra and much more explicitly aim for electric vehicles? Should we not put much more effort into figuring out what we do with lorries then? And ships and aircraft? And how we minimise dependence on batteries which are heavy, bulky, costly, often dirty, and perform too poorly? Or do we, when we jump on another bandwagon, again run the risk of ‘shoot first and aim later’? (full disclosure: I got this one from Obama).

    Difficult questions, a lot to ponder over. One thing is certain – vehicle efficiency standards, proper pricing and other forms of demand management will only become more important, not less, when the fuels do not deliver on climate. Given that last time round the car industry negotiated itself less stringent CO2 standards because of the contribution biofuels were going to make, this time round tougher, not weaker, car standards are in order for 2020.

    At least after what happened last month, it seems that it’s not only scientists any more that believe the future is not in hydrocarbons; it’s now landing at a political level. That is progress, of sorts.