How to Get EU’s Biofuels Policy Moving Again

FROM THE JANUARY ISSUE: Emmanuel Desplechin, secretary general of ePure, talks about the importance of transportation fuels in the European Union's greenhouse gas reduction goals.
By Emmanuel Desplechin | December 18, 2017

After a year of debate focusing on what the European Union’s renewable energy policy should look like post-2020, Europe now must decide among several different visions—especially when it comes to biofuels. As we begin 2018, the only thing that is clear to everyone is that more needs to be done now to decarbonize EU transport and move Europe’s energy reality closer to its ambitious rhetoric. While top officials such as European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič keep up the cheerleading in speeches and press releases, their proposals would actually make a bad situation worse.

The latest State of the Energy Union report from the Commission offered a vivid example of how the EU is working against its own goals when it comes to renewables policy. The report shows there has not been sufficient progress toward the 10 percent target for renewables by 2020, and warns that greenhouse gas emissions in transport continue to rise.

But instead of pushing for smarter use of existing technology such as crop-based biofuels to help reverse the EU’s poor showing in transport decarbonization, the Commission wants to phase them out and pursue the myth of tomorrow’s zero-emission vehicles. And by proposing a low-emissions fuel blending obligation of just 6.8 percent by 2030, starting from 1.5 percent in 2021, it would leave an unacceptably large percentage of the transport energy mix taken up by fossil fuels.

The same counterproductive forces are at work in the European Parliament, where a series of committee votes has sent mixed messages about where the assembly will stake out its position on the biofuels question. The environment committee, which is in charge of the biofuels section of the Renewable Energy Directive, has pushed for a total phase-out of crop-based biofuels by 2030—an even more draconian vision than what the Commission wants.

The transport committee, where some members tried to find a compromise way forward, ended up rejecting its own opinion on the legislation.

The most recent opinion, from the industry and energy committee, went in yet another direction. It would raise the overall EU ambition for renewables in the energy mix to 35 percent, and set a target of 12 percent renewables in transport. While at first glance that seems like a positive step, the proposal also would exclude crop-based biofuels such as renewable EU ethanol from a new, higher blending obligation on fuel suppliers set at 10 percent. So it would still slow down progress toward decarbonization—again, leaving the door open for fossil fuels.

This round-and-round positioning on biofuels even has environmental lobby groups confused about the best way forward. A group of them cosigned a letter in November urging members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to reject a renewables target for transport.

It is not too late for MEPs to find common ground, but the clock is ticking. The full European Parliament will decide its position on RED II on Jan. 15. Ideally, it will move closer to what EU Member States are asking for in their draft position: build on the success of the existing framework; leave in place the 7 percent cap on crop-based biofuels; and promote advanced biofuels and renewable electricity in addition to, not at the expense of, existing solutions.

That vote will be the start of negotiations between the Parliament, the Commission and the Council—a process that could take six months. If the EU wants to be the world leader on promoting renewables, it will need to do more than simply handwringing or calling for “further improvements” in transport energy or relying on uncertain scenarios about growth in electric vehicles.

The EU cannot allow another year to go by with an increase of greenhouse gas emissions from transport. It needs to use the tools it has today—including sustainable crop-based biofuels—as it lays the groundwork for more advanced technologies.

Author: Emmanuel Desplechin
Secretary General
ePURE, the European Renewable Ethanol Association