Europe’s Renewables ‘Multipliers’ Only Subtract

FROM THE MAY ISSUE: ePure's Emmanuel Desplechin writes his column about Europe's renewables policies and the loopholes that reduce their impact.
By Emmanuel Desplechin | April 20, 2018

European lawmakers are finalizing the EU’s renewable energy policy for 2020 through 2030. Negotiators are trying to reconcile different ambitions for renewable energy in transport from the European Commission, Parliament and EU member countries.

All sides claim to want to boost renewables, but it’s necessary to look behind the numbers in each of their scenarios to see how they fall short of what Europe needs to meet its climate goals. They rely on “multipliers” that artificially inflate the contribution of certain renewables, while doing nothing to help the climate. Double counting electrified rail transport or certain waste-based fuels are good examples.

These “virtual renewables” allow countries to create the illusion of progress. But make no mistake: In reality, they leave a gap that will be filled only by fossil energy. This is important because each of the current proposals under consideration could in some way limit the contribution of sustainable biofuels like European ethanol to the EU’s energy mix.

The original proposal from the European Commission did not even set a target for renewable energy in transport, and would sharply reduce the contribution of crop-based biofuels to a cap of just 3.8 percent in 2030. The changes proposed by the other EU institutions are a mixed bag of improvements and step backward from the ultimate goal of meeting Europe’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG).

The European Parliament voted in January on its position, which calls for a 12 percent renewables target for transport and caps crop-based biofuels in a range from the consumption level in 2017 (which no one even knows) up to 7 percent. That’s already problematic because it will reward those countries that are failing to meet their existing targets by allowing them to keep falling short.

But it would also allow countries to count certain renewables multiple times, as a way to make it look as if they are closer to their targets. For example, renewable energy for electric vehicles would count 2.5 times the actual energy used, aviation at 2.5 times and maritime renewable energy 1.2 times. 

And the general approach agreed upon by EU member states, while setting a higher ambition for renewables in transport at 14 percent, is even more generous with multipliers. It would allow five times counting for electric vehicles, double counting for renewable electricity for rail, and double counting for some alleged waste-based fuels in a way that would encourage importing certain fuels instead of using domestically produced biofuels like European ethanol. 

Again, remember: These multipliers are not real renewables, they are “virtual” renewables. Counting them toward a national target only opens the door to using more fossil energy. That certainly does not qualify as a high ambition for renewables.

Europe needs a Renewable Energy Directive II that delivers a real target for renewables in transport, not a policy that uses math tricks to show inflated results. Here’s what that should look like:
First, the EU should have a firm 12 to 15 percent target for renewables in transport, without multipliers, to which crop-based biofuels can contribute. It should follow a trajectory that starts no lower than the previously agreed 2020 baseline for renewables and not allow backtracking, and it should allow all sustainable biofuels to contribute.

Second, the EU must ensure a stable policy framework for existing and future biofuels investments by keeping a 7 percent crop cap. Any lowering of the cap reduction should not penalize biofuels with high GHG savings.

Third, the EU needs to promote advanced biofuels in synergy with crop-based biofuels with a firm and ambitious renewable energy share target that includes a binding subtarget for advanced biofuels, without multipliers.

And finally, the revamped RED II should strengthen sustainability criteria. There should be a ceiling on some waste-based biofuels and no double counting  allowed that would encourage importation of raw materials that might be incorrectly declared as wastes and residues, and further reduce the share of domestic sustainable biofuels. Similarly, the contribution of transport fuels from palm oil and its derivatives to the renewable energy share target should be limited until global peatland conversion is halted.

The result would be significantly closer to what the EU needs and what everyone should want—a renewable energy policy that really promotes renewable energy.

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