EU Fiddling while Oil Burns – Time for Proactive Biofuels Policy
by by Francis X. Johnson (Public Service Europe) Policies should focus on long-term approaches to a sustainable biofuels market development, rather than short-term reactive approaches
Europe’s relationship with biofuels has been marked by dramatic turns. Biofuels for transport were almost non-existent in the European Union when, 10 years ago, the EU Biofuels Directive set voluntary targets for their use. Many political constituencies including environmentalists supported the idea and some member states offered generous subsidies; envisioning a triple win of climate mitigation, energy security and rural development as farmers and agri-businesses diversified into biofuels.
In 2009, the EU Renewable Energy Directive gave the market a boost by requiring 10 per cent of the EU’s energy for transport to come from renewable sources – including but not limited to biofuels. Demand for biodiesel was particularly strong as EU tax laws and regulations – and automakers’ marketing – had greatly increased the popularity of diesel vehicles. European biofuel subsidies went primarily to vegetable oils for biodiesel and less to bioethanol that can substitute for gasoline.
Serious sustainability issues can indeed arise with such crops but the narrow focus on biofuels ignored the complexity of global commodities markets. Demand for soya is driven by soaring meat consumption while palm oil is directed mainly at food and pharmaceutical markets. Also lost in the debate was the crucial role of increased agricultural productivity or the potential synergies from co-producing multiple types of goods – food, feed, fuel and fibre – in integrated landscapes, which can reduce the extent and impacts of land use change.
Therefore, with this cap, the EU endangers – or reinterprets – its own 10 per cent target leaving the status quo, conventional oil, as the biggest winner. And it strikes a blow to equity and development. Shall we continue to import oil from rich countries so they can become richer rather than taking the opportunity to import biofuels from poor countries?
… Indeed, clearing rainforests to plant oil palm is just as bad whether the end use is biodiesel, biscuits or cosmetics.
Biofuels have been an easy target for advocacy groups seeking media attention but will the EU take on the status quo market forces and poor governance that have long caused deforestation, land degradation and pollution? Will it discourage further fossil-fuel development, promote energy efficiency and work to sharply reduce Europe’s unsustainably high transport energy use?
There is no silver bullet: we need an array of solutions. But policy-makers need to keep in mind that while biofuels are conditionally sustainable, the fossil fuels they displace are always unsustainable.
…Otherwise the combination of publicity-seeking NGOs and protection-seeking agri-businesses will ensure that the oil keeps burning while the commission keeps fiddling. READ MORE