Today we celebrate International Mother Earth Day. A day when we should all stop and think of how the Earth’s ecosystems provide us with life and sustenance and try to also understand how our actions impact the environment, and ultimately our survival. This year’s theme set by the UN - "Environmental & Climate Literacy" – couldn’t be timelier.
Many people want to take action on Earth Day by planting a tree or informing themselves on climate change solutions and environmental conservation. However, in today’s era of post-truth politics and information overload, we often struggle to make sound judgements about what is best for the environment and what is agenda-driven rhetoric. Same goes for lawmakers who are in charge of setting the policies that will lead us to a more environmentally friendly economy and lifestyle.
A perfect example is the issue of conventional biofuels. First generation biofuels have become the victim of misinformation and emotional headlines stating that all food-based biofuels are responsible for hunger and deforestation. The fact is that not all conventional biofuels are created equal, and that climate change itself threatens food security and ecosystems far more than biofuels.
While countries around the world have made enormous strides towards fighting climate change, some of the proposed policies in Europe lack the supporting evidence to justify their adoption. For example, the new Renewables Energy Directive aims to cut the use of food-based biofuels from the current 7% to 3.8% by 2030. MEPs and EU Member States have already started examining the proposal. In the spirit of today’s theme, I urge them to consider the evidence that will help to better understand and inform the options that Europe has to reduce GHG emissions in transports, and reach its Paris Agreement targets. My hope is that the following undisputable facts serve to add sound science to the debate regarding first-generation biofuels, and in particular, one of the most sustainable and available alternatives to conventional gasoline – Brazilian sugarcane ethanol.
- Brazilian sugar cane sold in Europe achieves among the highest GHG emission savings of all biofuels produced at scale: over 70% relative to fossil fuel alternatives and more than 55% when estimated ILUC emissions are accounted for.
- It is sustainable throughout its full life-cycle. In sugarcane fields, carbon stocks amount to 60 tonnes of carbon per hectare (including above and below ground carbon stocks). Sugarcane only needs to be replanted about every six years which reduces tilling of land that releases carbon dioxide.
- It has no role in the fuel vs food or deforestation debate. Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is produced in biorefineries that generate sugar, clean fuel and bioelectricity. It occupies only 1.5% of all arable land in Brazil and is grown 2500 km away from the Amazon rainforest.
There is an urgent need to set the record straight, to listen to facts and not rhetoric, and to make logical choices for alternative fuels and the decarbonization of the transportation sector. Instead, the new Renewables Energy Directive has largely disregarded the evidence and intends to phase out first-generation biofuels completely. This effectively shuts the door to one of the cleanest and most sustainable energy sources to ensure low-emission mobility.
Europe’s leaders often tout that the EU is a leader in the fight against climate change and environmental protection. However, the proposed biofuels legislation is in stark contrast to EU emission goals. We should perhaps look outside our bubble and learn from other regions. Brazil has replaced more than 40% of its gasoline consumption with sugarcane ethanol, saving 370m tonnes of GHG emissions since 2003, and has done so in parallel with setting strict environmental laws to protect the tropical rainforest. The Agro-ecological Zoning for Sugarcane initiative limits the amount of land to be used for sugarcane to approximately 7.5% of Brazil’s territory, seven times more than what is currently used, and prohibits the clearance of native vegetation to expand sugarcane cultivation anywhere in the country.
Taking time to think about #EarthDay17 and all the benefits a clean environment provides, we should ask the critical questions regarding the choices Europe is making. In the name of "Environmental & Climate Literacy," these choices should be backed by evidence and not by false, emotional statements. As the UN puts it, “education is the foundation for progress,” and policy lacking scientific justification is the foundation for regression.
The revision of the Renewable Energy Directive represents a tremendous opportunity to foster the further development of clean energy in the European Union (EU) for decades to come. The 2009 Directive has had a critical impact on increasing the share of renewables in the EU through binding targets, and a predictable overall framework for renewable energy implementation.
But the current proposal lacks ambition and is missing a key opportunity in helping to reach the Paris Agreement targets, especially with regards to the transportation sector, which accounts for almost a quarter of Europe’s GHG emissions.
In my opinion, the critical flaws of the proposed Renewables Energy Directive as it stands are as follows:
- The proposed target for renewables in transportation increases only 0.6% - from 10% currently to, in the best case scenario, 10.6% in 2030.
- No distinction is made among conventional biofuels. Renewable fuels, which are sustainable and have superior environmental benefits, such as Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, are inappropriately lumped in with worse-performing biofuels.
- Capping ALL conventional biofuels irrespective of their individual merits is not cost-effective or results-focused.
- The technology needed to produce significant amounts of lignocellulosic biofuels at a commercial scale is not yet mature and the cost is very high – making the 3.6% target quite ambitious.
Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is classified as an advanced biofuel by the US EPA, and by California’s Air Resources Board, even when ILUC is considered. These are transparent, scientific and credible benchmarks. It achieves the highest GHG emission savings of all biofuels produced at scale (over 70% relative to fossil fuels, and more than 55% when accounting for ILUC emissions). We therefore call to distinguish biofuels based on GHG emissions savings, rather than on the feedstock used. More specifically, a strict sustainability criteria based on GHG emissions savings should be applied to all biofuels that are currently capped at 7%, and only those biofuels that fail to meet these criteria thresholds should be capped at 3.8% in 2030.
A complete overhaul of climate and energy policy is needed if we are to reach the ambitious EU emission reduction targets, and sustainable conventional biofuels need to play a key role. A comprehensive EU energy policy which incentivises and promotes sustainable conventional biofuels will help the EU to meet its key climate abatement and energy security objectives in 2030 and beyond.
Second-generation ethanol will not happen without a robust and healthy first-generation ethanol market to provide business certainty for the development of more advanced renewable fuels. We should and must think long-term and continue to invest in R&D, but we must also act now and consider and implement all of the available solutions in transitioning towards low-emission mobility. Brazilian sugarcane ethanol can provide the EU with environmentally-friendly transport fuel to help decarbonise road transport.
If Europe is to achieve its ambitious targets and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in transportation, the Commission should not pick winners. All sustainable alternatives should be promoted.
2016 was the warmest year on record since the industrial revolution. At Politico’s recent debate on decarbonizing Europe’s transport, that was held in Brussels, DuPont’s Jan Koninckx recognised that the most immediate way to decarbonise transport is through cleaner fuels. He correctly said that if implemented, the European Commission’s proposed reduction of first-generation biofuels from 7% to a cap of 3.8% would result in increased European dependency on oil.
Maroš Šefčovič said, last week, that there is an international consensus that first-generation biofuels should be phased out. This is simply not true. Countries such as Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, India, Thailand and the US are all producers of first-generation biofuels and have no intention of phasing out these important CO2-reducing petrol alternatives. It is also important to note that none of these countries regard first- and second-generation biofuels as being in opposition with one another, as the European Commission seems to, but see them as complementary. This is exactly the spirit of the Biofuture Platform led by Brazil that was launched at COP22. The Biofuture Platform reflects the international consensus, and underscores the fact that the EU is, absurdly, the only major economy that is focused on phasing out first-generation biofuels.
This is precisely what Brazil’s Agriculture Minister emphasised during a recent roundtable discussion in Brussels. Brazil, Minister Maggi said, is committed to fighting climate change, and sugarcane ethanol is an important tool in its energy sustainability strategy. More than 40% of Brazil’s energy production comes from bioenergy and hydropower, and sugarcane is the number one source of renewable energy in the country. Minister Maggi advocated for the sustainability of first-generation biofuels, while welcoming the development of second-generation ethanol. He mentioned the Sugarcane Agro-Ecological Zoning, adopted in 2009, a law that prohibits the clearing of any type of native vegetation to plant sugarcane.
Vested interests in Europe are also pushing the falsehood that using first-generation biofuels means taking food from people’s mouths to run your car. This is a highly emotive accusation that has some European policymakers running scared. But while it makes a great headline, again, it is simply untrue. Swedish Minister for the Environment Karolina Skog said that she considered that differentiating conventional from advanced biofuels based on whether the feedstocks can be used to produce food is not an appropriate criterion, and does not make biofuels less or more sustainable. As Minister Maggi stated, there is absolutely no food-versus-fuel issue in Brazil in terms of the production of first-generation biofuels. Indeed, ethanol production accounts for only 1% of land use and Brazil is the world’s third largest agricultural product exporter.
Šefčovič has said that first-generation biofuels should be phased out, and has asked for innovation in the agriculture and chemical industries to deliver advanced biofuels. But the European Commission will not see the investments in second-generation biofuels it wants if policymakers do not also support traditional biofuels. You cannot kill the biofuels sector by eliminating first-generation biofuels and then expect it to rise miraculously phoenix-like from the ashes to deliver second-generation fuels.
If Europe is to achieve its ambitious targets and reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in transportation, the Commission should not pick winners. All the sustainable alternatives should be promoted and the proposed indiscriminate 3.8% cap on first-generation biofuels must be abandoned.
This is our last post of the year. 2016 will definitely go down in history as an eventful year, both on the political and policy levels. I hope you will all get to disconnect from work, rest, and enjoy the Winter Holidays with families and friends.
The Commission had promised us a ‘year of delivery’, and it did deliver indeed. We hadn’t seen such an amount of proposals in years – this is likely to keep us busy through 2017 and beyond. It’s not all perfect, but we know what we have to work with now.
We often hear in Brussels that the Juncker Commission is very ‘political’. But the downside of being ‘political’ is that you can be tempted to shut an eye on the facts and give in to pure political considerations instead, regardless of the actual consequences. This is precisely what happened with biofuels in the proposed legislation on renewable energy, and the decision to significantly reduce the use of all first generation biofuels, regardless of their GHG emission performance.
So, in 2017 our job is going to be to try and put back some nuance into the proposed legislation for 2030. In particular, we are going to try and convince policymakers that a black and white approach to conventional biofuels, while easier to understand, will not solve the problem of transport emissions and might actually make it worse. The problem is that many policymakers are still ‘traumatized’ by the never-ending discussions around indirect land-use change and do not want to reopen the debate. NGOs on the other hand are trying to convince everyone that only e-mobility can reduce emissions in transport, and that biofuels consist in taking people’s food and running your car with it.
Reality is a bit different. Yes, there are some conventional biofuels whose sustainability is uncertain, but not all of them. You just need to have a look at the latest studies to see it (hint: one of these, known as ‘GLOBIOM’ was commissioned by… the Commission). And guess what: sugarcane ethanol is one of the most sustainable biofuels even when ILUC is considered. The problem is that the Commission felt under so much pressure from public opinion that it did not fight it and adopted instead this simplistic narrative. Now we have to go and explain to people that the most common misconceptions on biofuels are not always true, especially when it comes to sugarcane ethanol, and why the proposed policies have a big chance of backfiring.
Despite the task at hand, we are really looking forward to 2017. We will be hearing more about Mercosur too, with a first civil society meeting scheduled for mid-January and another round of negotiations in March. We’re hopeful that progress can be made on the deal over the next few months and will follow closely the debate.
Thanks again for reading us and have a nice holiday!
Are we not losing sight of the main objective: reduce GHG emissions from transport?
My feeling after having read and digested the new proposal on the Renewable Energy Directive is that by 2030 there will probably not be a massive change in how much we emit from our transportation activities.
These are my doubts:
Trajectory is not realistic – I doubt that the trajectory proposed for the phase out of conventional biofuels will be actually feasible. Don’t take me wrong, I am very much in favour of advanced biofuels – some of UNICA’s members produce them – and I think it is good to have a specific sub-target for fuel suppliers. But, my question is: will advanced biofuels be able to replace the conventional biofuels at the rhythm foreseen by the Commission? I don’t think so! Advanced biofuels production often relies on conventional biofuels existing investment, infrastructures, biomass. This basis will not be there, after years of legislative instability and yet another change proposed last week, the situation is already looking gloomy. As a biofuel producer I would probably not dare to invest again in the sector under such premises.
Risk of more fossil fuels – In fact, I see the risk of more use of fossil fuels when conventional biofuels cannot be replaced with advanced!!! Certainly, it will not be electricity to come to the rescue. Also here, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think electric vehicles are in competition with biofuels. At least not in the foreseeable future! The Commission did not even go for a big push for electrification of transport as its recent narrative suggested. As I see it, we will end up, in perhaps other 20 years, with hybrid cars which can run with electricity and biofuels. Nor will come to the rescue other alternative fuels. Member States showed already during the negotiations on the Alternative Fuels infrastructure deployment directive, that they do not want to be told how to promote alternative fuels. So, no mandatory targets and national plans were to be submitted to the Commission on 18 November this year. We will have to wait until the end of the year to see how much countries are committed on this front.
GHG emission reduction target – I am very much in favour of the blending mandate. I think it is the right approach which keeps the focus on the main goal of reducing emission. But what about leaving fuel suppliers free to simply choose the less emitting fuels to meet their 6.8% target? This would have finally recognised and given a role to bioethanol, which is conventional but actually reduces GHG emissions and has a low ILUC impact, as assessed by the Commission itself. I think this would have been feasible from a scientific perspective, but unfortunately not so much on a political one, based on public misconceptions (see my blog on ‘Why science matters’ here).
Now, my question remains: how are we going to reduce emissions from transport in the next decade?
I look forward to the beginning of negotiations in the institutions and I will be happy to bring the positive example of Brazil, where sugarcane ethanol, one of the best performing conventional biofuels, is actually reducing transport emissions, improving the agricultural sector and creating the conditions for the next generation of biofuels to develop and become commercially viable.
Like most people with an interest in European energy issues, we are impatiently waiting for the release of the European Commission’s ‘Winter Package’. In this package, the Commission will amongst other things present its much awaited and certainly controversial new plan for renewable energy sources for 2030.
Biofuels policy has been quite sensitive in the EU as you know. Earlier this year, the Commission released what we know as the ‘Globiom study’, a report which looked at the GHG emissions of various biofuels taking into account Indirect Land Use Change. The purpose of this study was to put a definitive end to speculations around the ILUC impact of conventional biofuels (food crop based) and determine which ones actually reduce emissions and which ones do not.
The results could not have been any simpler: compared to fossil fuels, ethanol reduces, on average, emissions by one third (33%), much more than other conventional biofuels. Guess which ethanol in particular emits even less? No surprise for us: sugarcane ethanol! The same study, based on the very conservative default values of the Commission, found that sugarcane ethanol reduces emissions by 56%. As for advanced biofuels (waste-based) their emissions are close to zero. The problem is they’re not commercially viable yet.
Now think of yourself as a policymaker for a second, one whose job it is to find a way to reduce emissions in the transport sector, preferably at the lowest possible cost for society. You have these facts in your hands. Logic dictates that you put together a policy framework which encourages the use of those biofuels which actually reduce emissions, right?
Well, it seems it’s not always the case. In its Strategy to decarbonize the transport sector, published right before the summer, the Commission made the decision to focus on advanced biofuels only and phase out all conventional biofuels by 2030, regardless of their emission performance. To put it simply, the Commission has decided that it will phase out the only type of biofuel that can actually reduce emissions today because it’s clean and affordable enough to do so.
If like us you like to think you are a logical person, right now, you’re thinking ‘why’? Why would the Commission not differentiate between two clearly different biofuels even though their emission performance is so different? Why would the Commission go as far as to ignore the findings of a study it paid for itself? And why do this while knowing that the EU is lagging behind its transport emissions target?
Believe it or not, the answer is… public opinion. The Commission explicitly admitted that its decision was based on the public’s feelings towards conventional biofuels (the fuel vs. food myth which has been debunked, including by the European Commission itself, a number of times), despite what the scientific data showed. It even went as far as discrediting the calculations of the study it had paid for itself.
According to the Commission, the public is worried that the production of all conventional biofuels uses land which would otherwise be used to grow food. The truth is that in countries like Brazil, food production actually increased as a result of the push to produce more ethanol. In a recent statement, the European Farmers’ Association even recognizes that the production of biofuels has even helped stabilize the food market and made it more resilient to price shocks.
By ignoring these facts, the Commission is doing what too many politicians are doing today – giving in to people’s fears while ignoring the consequences of its decisions. With a little bit of courage and common sense, it might actually save the jobs of thousands of people who work to produce sustainable biofuels used on the European market, and reduce GHG emissions. Isn’t that the point in the end?
The publication of the Communication on low emission mobility by the European Commission in late July and the announcement of the upcoming new Renewable Energy Directive put biofuels, once again, in the front stage.
And this inevitably made it irresistible for stakeholders to push forward as many reports, blogs and opinions as possible to convey their arguments with the Commission. Many of these publications have a common point: to criticize the whole conventional biofuels world. This is not the first time I express my regrets and frustration with this black and white approach. As I have repeated over and over, not all biofuels are created equal and each of them should be evaluated based on its true environmental impact.
The fact is that none of the recent publications addressed founded criticism to sugarcane ethanol, which despite being a conventional biofuels has among the highest emissions saving performances. Even Laszlo Varro, chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA), who recently strongly criticized biofuels alleging “ugly questions about sustainability” said that “if I had to write a list with the world’s best designed schemes for investment in renewables, countries such as Mexico and Brazil would be there”. With 45% of energy coming from renewables, Brazil has one of the world’s cleanest energy mix and sugarcane is the #1 source of renewable energy. Sugarcane is mainly used to produce ethanol that reduces emission by 90% on average, in addition to bioelectricity. For me, the words of Mr. Varro are a clear proof that some conventional biofuels are better than others!
Now, the question is: how is the Commission going to distinguish among conventional biofuels on the basis of their individual environmental performances? This is a difficult political decision to make. However, in practice, this is what the scientific evidences tell us: there are sustainable conventional biofuels even when you scratch the surface!
Today the European Commission published a Communication on low-emission mobility which lays down its vision and strategy for transport over the next few decades. While we acknowledges the Commission’s clear support signal towards advanced biofuels – as they certainly represent one way forward to decarbonize transport – we are also deeply concerned about the gradual phase out of first-generation biofuels. As the Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) Directive last year, this approach discriminates against all first-generation biofuels regardless of their actual GHG emission reductions. Such a U-turn only creates legislative instability and confusion for investors and does not help the EU in achieving its ambitious climate targets.
By refusing to take into consideration the concrete positive impacts of ethanol produced from sugarcane, the proposal effectively turns a blind eye to one of the cleanest alternatives on the market today.
Unlike other first-generation biofuels, sugarcane ethanol is one of the best performers in terms of GHG emissions reduction, even when indirect land-use change is considered. Moreover, Brazilian sugarcane ethanol does not face the alleged food vs. energy dilemma since, according to recent studies, including by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, 2016), it has a negligible impact on food prices. Other countries are also looking at reducing their emissions from transports. Brazil, for instance, has replaced 45% of its gasoline consumption with sugarcane ethanol and the United States classified this specific biofuel as an advanced alternative.
By progressively eliminating first-generation biofuels, the Commission does not solve the problem of emissions from the 94% of energy in transport which will still be coming from liquid fuels in 2030.
We hope that the assessment of the impact of a gradual phasing-out of first-generation biofuels takes into account the investment already made by the industry. The development of advanced biofuels would depend on a healthy conventional biofuel industry, which is going to face great instability and economic losses in the years to come due to the regulatory shift generated by the ILUC Directive first and this strategy now.
The discriminatory approach towards first generation biofuels makes this Communication on low-emission mobility a missed opportunity.
Now, we look forward to the opportunity to maintain a fruitful and constructive dialogue with the Commission in the upcoming phase towards the new Renewable Directive and a new policy for sustainable bioenergy and biofuels for the period post-2020.
What would you think if I told you that I want to have a leading role in climate change policy but that I restrict the access of renewable solutions to my market?
“You’re totally inconsistent” would be the natural answer. But this is exactly what the European Commission just did.
The EU has ambitious climate targets. The Commission is currently engaged in drafting its new renewable energy directive and is discussing its strategy post-2020 to decarbonize transport. The same institution, based on the conclusions of the so-called GLOBIOM study, acknowledges that sugarcane ethanol is the conventional biofuels with the highest greenhouse gas savings. Brazil is also producing second-generation ethanol based on sugarcane wastes and residues. Therefore, it would make sense for the EU to import sugarcane ethanol.
Wrong answer. Domestic vested interests prevailed over the EU public interest and the Commission decided to remove ethanol from the trade offer that was exchanged with Mercosur yesterday! Consequently, the EU will continue to import oil freely and to promote the consumption of inefficient biodiesel.
Read our position paper and you will get a sense of how disappointed and, to some extent, how frustrated I am.
The EU-Mercosur agreement would provide a unique opportunity to strengthen our collaboration in the sugar and ethanol sector – a sector in which a number of European companies (Shell, Tereos, BP, Louis Dreyfus among others) have already heavily invested in Brazil.
The sustainability and competitiveness of Brazilian sugar and ethanol would be a perfect complement to the EU production, increasing consumers’ welfare, boosting innovation in the bioeconomy while helping to preserve the environment.
It’s time to change the way we look at trade negotiations. They don’t take place in isolation of other policies. The Commission will have a second chance to include sizeable TRQs for sugar and ethanol in the next round of negotiations. Let’s hope it won’t be a missed opportunity!
This week UNICA’s President Elizabeth Farina was supposed to attend the Apex-Brazil conference on the EU-Brazil partnership, in the presence of Brazilian Ambassador to the EU Vera Machado.
Of course, the event was cancelled as a consequence of the tragic events in Brussels on Tuesday 22 March. Elizabeth would have shared important messages on sugarcane which represent such a strategic sector for Brazil, as it delivers many products and opportunities, mainly from sugar and ethanol.
On sugar, some of you may already know that a little over ten years ago when the EU and Brazil were negotiating the Mercosur agreement, sugar was excluded from it because the EU sugar market was deemed to be too fragile for competition. Since then, it has gone through a series of reforms – the last of which will take place next year – that will effectively make it mature for competition from abroad. A number of countries have already been granted duty-free sugar export quotas to Europe. It’s time Brazil is given the same treatment through the EU-Mercosur agreement.
On ethanol, we have extensively debated about its sustainability. Let’s talk now about the role it could play if only it was traded freely in Europe. Unfortunately, what currently happens is that ethanol is considered an agricultural product, contrary to what happens for biodiesel which is considered a chemical product, and this means a higher tariff at 19 euro/hectoliter in the EU. This custom classification is effectively preventing Brazil to export to Europe. By removing this tariff barrier, more Brazilian sugarcane ethanol could be traded with Europe. This does not mean that it would replace European production, but only complement it.
In addition, those who think this would only benefit Brazil are missing the point. It’s about much more than just exports really. Firstly, this would benefit European companies as well. Approximately 20% of the sugarcane processing in Brazil is actually done by European groups. For those operating in Europe in the bio-chemical and bio-plastic industry, it would mean access to an affordable and low-carbon feedstock in the shape of sugarcane ethanol.
With minimum 71% GHG emission reduction according to default values in the Renewable Energy Directive, and 55% if ILUC is factored in, its GHG performance is simply unmatched among first generation biofuels. Higher blends in conventional fuels would be a simple step. Add to this the diversification of supply sources, the competition to lower costs, the alleviation of pressure on cereals commodity markets… If this is not a low-hanging fruit to help the EU decarbonize its transport sector, I don’t know what it is!
If the EU wants to decarbonize its transport system, it must address the paradox of trading oil freely while imposing high import taxes on Brazilian sugarcane ethanol. The Mercosur agreement is a good opportunity to do this; let’s not waste it.