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An eventful year for renewables and climate change draws to a close

As we wind down towards the end-of-year holiday period, it’s time to take pause for our traditional reflection on the challenges and successes of the past year, and to take stock of opportunities and objectives for the year to come.

One of the major European legislative achievements of 2018 from was the final agreement on a new Renewable Energy Directive. Imperfect though it is, a positive outcome of REDII was maintaining and not compromising the 7% cap for first-generation biofuels, increasing the mandatory renewable energy share in transport, and establishing a target for the incorporation of second-generation biofuels, in the transport mix. An important win is that these targets can only be reviewed upwards and cannot be reduced. However we need to wait and see how the practical application of REDII will unfold, as implementation has been effectively put into the hands of member states.

The result of unstable regulations that has been the norm up to now (subsidies for solar panels, biofuels regulation, etc) has been a delay in implementing real mitigation measures. Important signals were sent with the publication of the EU’s bio-economy strategy and the long-term (2050) vision for a cleaner planet. But this talk needs to translate into action if we are to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees, and unfortunately the strategy and vision are shockingly short on ambition in terms of the concrete measures needed to achieve that. There is a vision, but no clear roadmap on how to get there.

Why? Partly, this is because it is difficult to reliably predict the technologies that will prevail, and therefore to invest in the right instruments. This makes is all the more difficult to engage those stakeholders who want greater clarity and certainty in order to invest in a future that is by definition uncertain. But clear incentives are required. It will be extremely hard to mobilise stakeholders to action without these predictable incentives.

These future uncertainties are also reflected at the political level. No-one knows what future elections will bring in a society that seems increasingly polarised, which could provoke drastic changes in approaches to climate change at the national and sub-national levels. We need to engage the whole society as much as we can to guarantee broad support for measures adopted and ensure that they are not reverted. But we also need to motivate, mobilise and encourage society at large to adopt the fundamental changes in habit that are required to help ensure a smooth transition toward a low-carbon economy. I personally believe that there is a groundswell of support from ordinary citizens for such measures – we only have to look at how innovative and vibrant many initiatives at the local level are as a testament to that fact. But such local initiatives won’t gain a critical mass and the necessary traction without the right and lasting policy framework.

It is really encouraging that, in 2018, bioenergy finally began to receive the recognition it deserves, and I look forward to that recognition increasing next year. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said, bioenergy makes up 50% of global renewable energy, so it’s high time that its potential, effectiveness and ready availability are harnessed. There’s no time to lose, the climate clock is ticking inexorably, and we need to promote the widespread use of bioenergy solutions, especially in heating and transportation.

Rather than decreasing, global emissions from the transport sector are growing fast. There is no one silver bullet for transport, and we certainly cannot afford to run down the clock and wait passively for one. The simple truth is that we need to use all the mitigating solutions that we already have at our disposal, of which biofuels is already playing a critical role in many jurisdictions. Brazil – a country that, according to the IEA, has the greenest energy matrix – has long led the way in successfully integrating renewable biofuels in its transport energy mix.

As a further significant step on that journey, Brazil recently adopted its Renovabio programme. This carbon-trading mechanism will not only help further reduce emissions from the whole transport sector, but is destined to keep the sector innovating in sustainable solutions. Last week production was launched of the first hybrid-flex-fuel vehicles (that run on electricity and ethanol), combining two of the best green-transport technologies for the climate, and we expect to see more transformative innovations like this coming on stream in the near future.

Innovation will be key. And the economics of any innovative solution need to make sense. Smart policy-making recognises the economic imperatives of stimulating innovation, and we hope to see much more of it in 2019.

I wish you all a very happy, peaceful and restful holiday season.