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  • 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.