3E Intelligence

During a recent seminar organised by the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, I heard EU commission expert for biofuels Paul Hodson express his growing frustration with all the negative news about the agro-fuels in the last twelve months. “Once I was proud of what I was doing”, Paul said, “but now I feel more and more like I am being looked upon as a pornographer”. Knowing Paul personally I really understand his predicament. With very ambitious EU targets (5.75% biofuels to be used for transport by 2010 and 10% by 2020), Hodson and his colleagues are trying hard to keep up the credibility of the EU’s biofuels action by defining sustainability certification criteria for the use of the alternative fuels. But maybe, in view of some recent reports, they should have the courage to question the policy alltogether and propose a moratorium on further promotion of biofuels until more research has been done into its environmental and economic impacts.

Two recent reports questioned the global political fever on biofuels. 

First of all, a study by Doornbosch and Steenblik (“Biofuels: is the cure worse than the disease?“) for the OECD Roundtable on Sustainable Development looked at the impacts of biofuels production on the food market, the environment and biodiversity and concluded:

  • “The rush to energy crops threatens to cause food shortages and damage to biodiversity with limited benefits”;
  • “Second-generation technologies hold promise but depend on technological breakthroughs”;
  • “The economic outlook for biofuels seems fragile”;
  • “Government policies supporting and protecting domestic production of biofuels are inefficient…(…) and not cost-effective”;
  • “Liberalising trade in biofuels is difficult but essential for global objectives”
  • “Certification of biofuels is useful for promoting good practices but cannot be trusted as a safeguard”.

The media reporting on this study (most media talked about “the OECD report” although this was not an officially endorsed OECD document) led to a lobbying storm with renewable energy and biofuels organisations calling on the OECD to disavow the study (see Bioenergy Pact).

The second report came from Nobel-prize winner Paul Crutzen who challenged the positive climate effects of the use of biofuels in a study published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions. According to Crutzen and his team, the emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) from agro-crop production could negate the positive climate impacts of switching to biofuels and, as N2O has a bigger impact than CO2 on climate change, could even lead to higher greenhouse gas emissions overall (see also Bioenergy Pact).

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  1. This is another indication of the weakness of targets for steering energy policy. We’ve seen this for example in the EU’s Kyoto targets, where countries such as Denmark, Netherlands & Spain are acquiring a sizeable part of their reduction targets from CDM (sometimes even more than 100%).

    It is often stated that binding targets are necessary to allow change. However, it appears that with binding targets, the flexibility moves from the numbers to the method of measurement. Energy indicators, as grand aggregates lend themselves very well to this.

    For example, the energy services directive does not seem to clearly define its 1% & 1.5% per year targets, and the interpretation of these targets and their measurement method need to be developed AFTER the directive has entered into force. It kind of puts the whole discussion whether 1% is too much or not ambitous enough in a new perspective.

    I for one would prefer to see targets being used as flags for leading change, rather than sticks cast in stone.

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