New Year’s resolution: let’s have a sustainable biofuels policy

by Cristina Mestre, Shipping and Fuels Officer, Transport & Environment

WHAT I KNOW IN 2016 THAT I DIDN’T KNOW IN 2015: As a newbie at T&E, it’s a challenge to summarise all I’ve learned about the biofuels story in the past seven months. But one lesson stands out: we need to continue winning the public debate on the sustainability of biofuels.

Once upon a time biofuel was ‘the thing’: it was a clean fuel which would help in phasing out the dirty fossil fuel era. Biofuels are mostly produced thanks to crops such as soy, palm and rapeseed. But because these crops use land and also provide food, they are not so sustainable.

Therefore in 2015 Europe did something not a single other country or region has yet done – it capped the use of land-based biofuels. Each member state can source no more than 7% of the 10% renewable target in transport from land-based biofuels. However, this is just up until 2020. What happens then?

Unsurprisingly, some are not happy with this cap and do not want any barriers to biofuels (including ‘bad’ biofuels) as of 2020. Some of them are already working on new biofuel mandates for the next decade that leave little room for the development of advanced biofuels – those made out of wastes, residues, etc, or other alternative fuels like green electricity.

Our view, however, is that the cap is should be reduced – resulting in the de facto phase-out of first-generation biofuels, creating room for better ones. We need to make the Commission see the ability it has to lead the way towards sustainable biofuels. We need to continue exposing the problem and talk about the massive indirect land-use change (ILUC) effects produced by land-based biofuels production. We need to talk about the new frontiers of biofuels production. And we will.

We also see the chance to engage all the stakeholders who have a say on this. By winning this political debate, we set the foundation for strong sustainable criteria for the introduction of advanced biofuels to the market, as well as for big technological improvements. Whether these technological leaps come about due to goodwill or obligation – both work! – they could yet drive us to zero-deforestation biofuels production, saving many megatons of CO2.

As a New Year’s resolution, all stakeholders involved in this debate need to commit to a sustainable EU biofuels policy. We should not see each other as enemies, but as ‘insights-carriers’ who have the different tools to make this happen. We at T&E will keep exposing the problem of deforestation driven by unsustainable biofuels – including at the new frontier of biofuels in Colombia where, at the end of last year, we shot a documentary. Hopefully this work will take us to a point in the not-too-distant future where we don’t need to expose the problem because it no longer exists.

Photo: Biofuels in the east German countryside (c) Dan Zelazo, Flickr Creative Commons

0 thoughts on “New Year’s resolution: let’s have a sustainable biofuels policy

  1. A few thoughts.

    1) there is already a large surplus of food in the world. According to FAO we produce food enough for 14 billion people. Fuel vs Food at a global scale is a myth and I hope that we can all face fact and start working for Food AND Fuel instead.

    2) Due to the large food surplus, prices are today only 1/3 of what they were 50 years ago (see eg. CBOT statistics). This has several consequences:
    – poor farmers now need to sell three times as much of their production to get cash for clothing, coal for cooking, land rent, seed, school, medicin, house-repairs. To make it possible for them to invest in more efficient (and more sustainable) production, food prices need to raise substantially. The vast majority of families in extreme poverty are such farmers.

    – the low prices pushes intensification in western countries further and further. Only specialized big farms with monocultures and moderna use of pesticides can today make a living in western society. Small farms are increasingly abandoned

    3) The largest threat to European biodiversity is abandonement of farmland. About 50 % of the red-listed species are dependent on agricultural practice – especially the landscape produced by small- and medium sized farms. These farms are now rapidly abandoned due to low agricultural prices. Since 1990, 30 million hectars have been abandoned in EU alone. The situation is even worse in former Soviet union.

    4) These areas are now threatened to be tree planted – which in many cases will make them unsuitable for agriculture forever (podsolification). If we ever will need more agricultural land . eg. due to a possible peak phosphorus, we need to keep these areas fit by cultivating.

    So using this farmland for sustainable biofuel production would give us a chance to keep Europe’s unique biodiversity alive, it will slower the urbanisation, it may raise grain prices and hence contribute to the development of Africa’s agriculture and it will keep these areas fit for future agriculture as an insurance.

    30 million hectars can provide 1500 TWh biofuel (e.g. ethanol+biogas – which has about 90 % CO2-reduction or ethanol +feed – also 90+% reduction + reducing the need for Amazonian soymeal). This is enough to fuel all of Europe’s buses that cannot be electrified and together with PHEV-technique – a large part of the trucks and cars that cannot be fully electrified.

    So I ask you to please acknowledge the complexity of the issue and not be stuck in a simplified black-white model of the reality. Biofuels can very well be sustainable – and taking into account also social and economical sustainability – even more sustainable than the so called second generation of biofuels – which will not give any incomes to poor farmers in Africa for a very long time – if ever.

    Let me quote FAOs word by Olivier Dubois on this:
    Overall FAO message on Reconciling Food and Fuel
    • It can be done
    • But we need to embrace complexity
    • We never said it was easy
    • But we have the knowledge and tools to do it
    So let’s make it happen!

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