European Union pondering biofuels retreat
We need to transition out of the fossil fuel era as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Choosing the right mix of technologies and policies to bring about such a transition will require a combination of vision and political courage.
Mistakes are an important part of the design science process. Bucky Fuller often reminded us that "if you don't make mistakes, you don't make anything". However, in order for mistakes to assume their true value, we have to acknowledge them as such -- even (especially?) when it's not the most politically expedient thing to do.
With so much at stake we can ill afford to squander precious human and financial resources pursuing paths sh0wn to hold little promise. (GW).
May 28, 2008
The pressure is rising on the Commission to water down plans to raise the share of biofuels in transport to 10% by 2020, as leading MEPs on the issue call for the target to be cut to 8% or scrapped entirely.
In March 2007, EU leaders committed to raising the share of biofuels in transport from current levels of around 2% to 10% by 2020, following growing concerns over rising oil prices, energy security and climate change.
The draft directive introduces a range of "sustainability criteria" for biofuels to counter growing concerns about the risks related to their mass production, including deforestation, hikes in food prices and water shortages.
"Given the many unknowns today, the responsible way to go forward seems to be to reverse the decision about the 10% renewable target and, instead, go for a lower target – like 8%," states the report drafted by Swedish MEP Anders Wijkman for Parliament's environment committee.
His report conflicts slightly with the one published last week for the industry committee by the leading MEP on the issue, German Green Claude Turmes. Indeed, the Turmes report goes even further by completely scrapping biofuels from the EU agenda (EurActiv 13/05/08).
The Turmes report justifies the rejection of biofuel mandates by saying: "Heads of state and government put specific preconditions to be fulfilled, i.e. a) the production must be sustainable and b) second generation must be commercially available. Since March 2007, evidence is growing that these conditions will not be fulfilled. The 10% target must therefore be abandoned."
Nevertheless, speaking at a joint briefing with Wijkman in Parliament on 27 May, Turmes signalled that, while he believes it is "too early" to set any form of target, he could shift on the issue.
Turmes further added that Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs had assured him that he would "not stand in the way" if he succeeds in clinching a deal with member states on reducing the target.
According to Turmes, while France and Poland have tried to rush through the 10% target, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands are more sceptical. Another 15 countries have no clear position and are "hiding behind" the Commission, he said, adding that he would be upping the pressure on the EU executive to change its stance on the 10%.
Wijkman wants the 8% target to be combined with a requirement for all biofuels which count towards the target to achieve greenhouse gas savings of at least 50% compared to conventional fuels – which is higher than the 35% proposed by the Commission.
He defends his proposal by saying: "We need a target for investors." According to him, the 10% target was "political" and "too high", although he did not explain why an 8% goal would be any different.
The reports should be voted upon in committees in July, while the full plenary is due to express its position on 23 September.
In a recent press release, the European Commission concedes that "the target has never been to reach 10% biofuels at any price. It is 10% biofuels under strict conditions. Those conditions include a workable and robust sustainability scheme, and commercial viability for second generation biofuels."
However, it underlines that an EU sustainability scheme, which will ensure that production does not have damaging side-effects, is currently under discussion and that it would be to Europe's advantage to promote such a scheme internationally (EurActiv 01/04/08).
"With or without the Union's 10% target, there will be a further increase in the worldwide production of biofuels. Europe can best make a contribution by doing everything possible to show that a sustainability scheme can work and to ensure a rapid transition to the new generation of biofuels. In the transport sector today, the only alternative to non-sustainable fossil fuel is biofuel," it stressed.
Biofuel producers are alarmed at the prospect of Europe retreating on its commitments, with European Bioethanol Fuel Association (eBio) Secretary General Rob Vierhout lamenting the fact that the debate has become "so emotional and irrational".
He cautioned against dropping the 10% target, saying this would simply shift the EU away from biofuel use while countries like the US and Brazil, which do not necessarily produce to the standards envisaged by the EU in its sustainability criteria, continue their production.
"There is no point in singling out biofuels as the source of all evil. Stopping biofuels would only have a very marginal impact on food prices," he told EurActiv, adding that existing scientific assessments show the 10% target to be "absolutely manageable" without unsustainable pressure being put on soil, water and biodiversity, even if it is entirely based on domestic production.
Farmers' associations are also angered by Parliament's plans, with Copa-Cogeca insisting that "the binding minimum objective of 10% for biofuels in transport must be maintained".
UK National Farmers' Union Vice-President Paul Temple adds that biofuels are the only practical solution to replacing a diminishing supply of fossil fuels and that targets are vital to reduce transport emissions.
Furthermore, biofuel technology, including second generation biofuels, can only progress with investment, which in turn requires long-term targets, he stressed. "Simple, comprehensible targets like this will help to give companies the confidence to deliver advanced biofuels," he said.
"Removing the 10% target means the EU would hold no sway over the sustainability standards of the fast-developing international market in biofuels and bioenergy, or any sustainability criteria for other agricultural commodities which may follow," he added.
While campaigners from a range of Europe-wide NGOs welcomed the proposals to scrap the target, they rejected the Wijkman proposals for an 8% target.
In a press release issued on 28 May, Nina Holland from Corporate Europe Observatory said: "An 8% target will cause almost as much damage as a 10% target. Pushing up food prices is causing hunger and that fact is inescapable. The EU's targets should be dropped."
Ariel Brunner, EU Agriculture Policy Officer for BirdLife International, agrees: "It is time for the biofuels target to be set aside and for fresh thinking on how to really tackle climate change while preserving natural habitats."
- 16 Jul. 2008: Industry and Energy Committee scheduled to vote on Turmes report.
- 23 Sep. 2008: Plenary scheduled to vote on the report.