Europe Charts  a New Path for Bioenergy

In October 2012, a European Commission proposal suggesting certain changes in Europe’s bioenergy policies was leaked to the press. What happened next may surprise you.

The proposal followed public protests about rising food prices and grain shortages that critics linked to the use of food crops for biofuel. Some scientists had also warned about the potential for a jump in greenhouse gasses if forests were felled to plant biofuel crops.

Although the proposed law upheld the EU’s overall target of 10 percent renewable energy in transportation by 2020, it limited land conversion for food-based biofuels such as corn ethanol. The commission suggested capping food-based biofuels at five percent while promoting the development of second-generation biofuels – such as grasses or straw – which don’t compete directly with food production.

“For biofuels to help us combat climate change, we must use truly sustainable biofuels,” declared Connie Hedegaard, the European Commissioner for Climate Action. “We are of course not closing down first-generation biofuels, but we are sending a clear signal that future increases in biofuels must come from advanced biofuels. Everything else is unsustainable.”

For Bioenergy Connection, reporter Laurie Udesky talked with Netherlands bioenergy experts Luuk van der Wielen and Patricia Osseweijer of Delft University about the proposal.

Q: What is driving the European Commission’s proposal to limit first-generation biofuels?

Luuk van der Wielen: “The EU is concerned about the sustainability of feedstock for biofuels. My feeling is that none of this is entirely a change – it’s just underlining the importance of sustainability once more. We also witnessed exploding food prices for which biofuels and bioenergy in general were blamed.

“Now, we know from the previous two [food crises] that bioenergy didn’t really play a big role. It was very clear that speculation, that diseases and drought had major implications for food prices, and that the relation to bioenergy was not so large ... But perception is everything. In that sense, the proposal was a sharpening of policy in which sustainability is driving. I’m not quite sure it’s a U-turn in EU policy. It’s a continuation of that policy.”

Patricia Osseweijer: “In 2010 the member states in Europe set the directive on renewable energy: a 20 percent share of energy from renewable sources by 2020 and a 10 percent share of renewable energy specifically in the transport sector. Now this has been under debate for the last few months. It is actually reflecting the discussion on the food/fuel issue. There’s concern that [renewable energy] cannot be sustainable if we have to rely on first generation bioenergy for transport fuels.”

Q: Is the EU Commission's proposal to limit crop-based biofuels to 5 percent of transportation renewables likely to pass?

Luuk van der Wielen: “That’s something we cannot predict. As far as I know, we’re talking about a leaked report from the EU commission. It’s not yet carved in stone. What the report does tell you is that we’re not at the end of the debate yet ... At the end of day, it tells you what Europeans want is a balanced discussion about sustainability across all the parameters: climate, energy, security, and income. And all these things are interrelated.

“The EU, like everybody else, is looking at what a bio-based economy could mean. For energy, Europe has some alternatives, including solar, wind, and bioenergy. But the chemical industry in Europe is the largest worldwide, and there are no alternatives other than bio-based when you change to renewables. In terms of [renewable] liquid fuels, since you want to drive a car from the north of Scandinavia to the South of Spain with one engine, everyone has to agree on certain fuels. So there are a number of problems to work through.”

Q: Did the commission’s leaked proposal come as a surprise to many people?

Patricia Osseweijer: “I don't think it's a surprise. Politically, the food/fuel debate in Europe is filled with a lot of assumptions, half-truths, and causal relationships that are not there. What I mean is, it’s often mentioned that developing biomass for fuels, energy and materials will heavily affect food security.

"But food security is dependent on a lot of other factors, and it's mostly dependent on poverty and access to food.”

“In fact, there are papers coming out noting that development of biomass for energy and fuels could actually provide food security for poor areas that have land available to grow crops. We’re talking about Africa, for instance, and this is research that Africans themselves are involved in.”

Luuk van der Wielen: “I think what Patricia said about poverty is terribly important. If there's no income, then there is no food security, however you cast it, because of the fluctuations of crops and local markets. For developing countries, climate is not their primary issue; food security is. And the way to get there is not growing more crops, but by ensuring income.”

“So, one cannot look at change in EU policy on biofuels independently of the rest of the world. Food security is something we should get right. It needs a high priority and should be a part of the international collaborations that we have with U.S., Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. But it’s still just one part of the equation.”

Europe Energy Crop

Pathway through a European field of rapeseed, one of the EU’s most common energy crops / photo: Simon Greig/Dreamstime.com

Q: What would changes in bioenergy policy mean for different EU member states?

Luuk van der Wielen: “Since the diversity of Europe at least matches that of the USA, it makes it hard to converge on a single path. Take the adjacent countries of Spain and Portugal: The middle of Spain is like a desert, while Portugal, in principle, has a great potential [for bioenergy crops]. However, it doesn’t have industries or a government that can invest.

“The northern states have more chemical and energy industries; southern states have more food industries. In Italy and in Greece, for example, there is virtually no chemical industry, so for them the impact of bioenergy will be entirely different than in the northern states.

“Germany picked up biofuels early on, but these were first generation biofuels. Now they are stuck with an industry with certain vested interests, such as those involved with creating biodiesel from rapeseed. There’s certainly not a long-term future in it. So now they have to change a vested industry.”

Q: Do certain agricultural policies need to change?

Luuk van der Wielen: “In the EU, we didn’t do an elaborate study of how a bio-based economy may impact the common agricultural policy. If there is excessive wine or wheat production, say, the policy in Europe only compensates the farmer for certain losses in income. We don’t utilize the enormous amount of money that European tax collectors put into this in innovation. Maybe there is land set aside that could be used for bioenergy or biochemical production. The only solution that southern European vintners apparently have is to replant vines or grapes on that piece of land, and they don’t look into the alternatives of producing bioenergy. That’s a cultural change that has to be made.”

Patricia Osseweijer: “The agricultural policy is designed to help farmers get sustainable income for their crops and not to have the food prices go down when there’s overproduction. But this provides no incentive to develop a sustainable agricultural infrastructure providing for both food and non-food uses.”

Q: What else might make a difference?

Patricia Osseweijer: “One thing we haven’t talked about is the role of the consumers themselves in the transition to a bio-based economy. For instance, the CEO of Unilever recently said, ‘We are doing everything to make sure we resource from sustainable producers, but two-thirds of our eco-footprint depends on consumer behavior such as recycling, not just throwing [the package] away.’ How the consumer can reduce our footprint on energy – including consuming less – should be part of the equation.”

Q: What lessons could the United States learn from Europe?

Luuk van der Wielen: “In my understanding, the climate side of bioenergy is a little less important in the United States because of the urgency of energy security. But you see the same sort of [problems from] overfertilization in the Mississippi Delta that we in Europe have been facing and trying to solve over the long term. If there is a lesson to be learned from Europe, it’s to look ahead at problems and not just at the problems that are directly facing you, such as energy security. Because the other problems are not going away.”

Credentials

Luuk van der Wielen

Affiliations: Director of BE-Basic, a public-private renewables R&D consortium and full professor at the Department of Biotechnology at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands; Visiting Professor, Institute for Bioproduct Development, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

Education: Holds his Ph.D. from Delft University of Technology

Impact: Advises industry, the sustainable energy section of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences, and collaborates with bioenergy centers nationally and internationally

Outside the office: Passive and active interest in jazz music

Planet-saving advice: "Global challenges have local solutions: there is no one-size-fits all."

Patricia Osseweijer

Affiliations: Flagship manager of the Centre for Bio-Based Ecologically Balanced Sustainable Industrial Chemistry (BE-Basic); professor in Biotechnology and Society at the Department of Biotechnology at Delft University; professor of Science Communication, Royal Institute of Engineering, visiting professor at the University Putra in Malaysia.

On global partnerships: “It’s very interesting to collaborate with different institutions around the world and combine studies and insights to see how we can learn how to do things better.”

Education: Ph.D. from the Free University of Amsterdam

Education Impact: Co-leader in national agenda for sustainable, responsible development; collaborates with industry and NGOs on the embedding of a bio-based economy

Planet-saving advice: “If we really want a sustainable planet, we need to better involve consumers and citizens in the challenges ahead so they get motivated to change attitudes and consuming behaviors.”

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