What’s really behind EU support for crop-based biofuels?

Ethanol delivers significant greenhouse gas emission savings — 64 percent on average compared to fossil petrol | via Shutterstock

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What’s really behind EU support for crop-based biofuels?

Across Europe, people want policies to encourage common-sense climate and clean-air solutions.



With emissions scandals and concerns about urban air quality making headlines nearly every day, it is no wonder that people across Europe are calling for change in EU environmental and energy policy.

The EU needs to decarbonize its transport sector to meet its climate change goals — and that is no easy task. Road transport is currently 94 percent reliant (84 percent of it imported) on oil and accounts for 22 percent of EU emissions. In its latest progress report on renewable energy the Commission admits there is “slow” progress in decarbonizing EU transport. Ambitious action is needed.

But with its revised Renewable Energy Directive (RED II), the European Commission seems to be going in a different direction. The Commission wants to phase out one of the EU’s best options for reducing greenhouse gases and decarbonizing transport: conventional biofuels like ethanol, a renewable, clean-burning fuel made from corn, wheat and sugar beet grown sustainably in Europe.

Ethanol delivers significant greenhouse gas emission savings — 64 percent on average compared to fossil petrol. It boosts engine performance and has low emissions of harmful pollutants. E10, a blend of gasoline with up to 10 percent ethanol, works in existing vehicles. The production of ethanol also provides significant income to Europe’s farmers.

Despite these benefits, the Commission wants to reduce the maximum contribution of crop-based biofuels such as ethanol from a maximum of 7 percent of road and rail energy in 2021 to 3.8 percent in 2030.

Why turn back?

What is the rationale behind such a seemingly counterproductive proposal? Listening to some EU policymakers, one might get the idea there was some groundswell of public support for moving away from renewable biofuels. At a POLITICO event in January, Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic defended the proposal to phase out conventional biofuels by saying there was a “public mandate” in favor of doing so. And a Commission official claimed at a conference in October that the policy was a response to perceived public opposition to biofuels.

“We cannot just be led by economic models and scientific theories,” the official said. “We have to be very sensitive to the reality of citizens’ concerns, sometimes even if these concerns are emotive rather than factual based or scientific.”

But both the science and the emotions show otherwise.

According to EU-wide opinion polls, Europeans overwhelmingly support the use of conventional biofuels made from crops and believe energy and environmental policies should encourage it.

More than 69 percent of Europeans say conventional biofuels should be encouraged, while just 15 percent think they should not, according to a Europulse poll of more than 11,000 respondents in the EU28, conducted earlier this year.

The poll findings also re-confirm the Commission’s own research in the last major EU-wide survey of public opinion on this issue: the EU’s 2010 Eurobarometer Biotechnology poll. That survey also found “broad support for biofuels” and that “a large majority of Europeans (72 percent) feel that biofuels should be encouraged and only 20 percent hold the opposite view.”

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‘Food vs fuel’ myth

The results are significant in that they contradict the Commission’s claim that the public opposes what some EU officials have misleadingly termed “food-based fuel.”

The poll shows that the whole “food-based fuel” argument is a myth: Claims that biofuels production has driven up food prices, taken the food from hungry people or had a negative impact on land use have been widely disproven by several studies — including the Commission’s own research. The production of renewable ethanol in Europe actually contributes to food security.

Commission policy should be based on science and evidence rather than on a misreading of public opinion. At a recent Platts conference in Geneva, a European Commission energy policy expert told the audience that “EU biofuels policy starts in the heads of the people.”

The numbers, however, tell a very different story: The people want biofuels.

Emmanuel Desplechin, secretary general, ePURE 

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