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Biofuels Consultation (Part I) Is the objective of promoting biofuels valid?

by Migeru Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 02:18:48 PM EST

Let's get started on this, shall we?

Biofuels Directive Review and Progress Report - Public Consultation

The European Union biofuels directive was adopted in May 2003. It aims to promote the use in transport of fuels made from biomass, as well as other renewable fuels.

The directive asks the European Commission to make a progress report before the end of 2006.

The progress report could be used as the basis for a proposal to amend the directive.

The Commission set out the broad lines for this review of the directive in its biomass action plan and biofuels strategy. Now, in preparing the progress report, the Commission's services would like to know the views of public authorities, businesses, non-governmental organisations and other interested parties.

Are we an interested party, or what?

Two weekends ago I wrote... er... copied-and-pasted a diary on the European Union Public Consultations. In it I listed about twenty open consultations, most of them open to "stakeholders" (read: locusts). Then, a couple of days later, an article critical of biofuels in the FT prompted Jerome to write a front-page story. In it we learned that...
1. it would take >700% of the available agricultural land in the EU to produce enough biofuels to replace fossil fuels for transport EU-wide, at 2004 consumption levels. Worldwide, between 80% and 90% of all agricultural land would be necessary.

2. While biofuels are carbon-neutral, if would cost at least €100 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions saved. If reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a goal, then according to companies selling so-called "carbon offsets", it costs as little as £7.50 per tonne to save carbon emissions by other means.

In any case, Jerome's diary was the perfect excuse to brainstorm on the above EU consultation which closes on July 10. Wait! what day is it today? July 1st already? Better get to work if we want to have our voice heard! Having it listened to is another matter entirely, though there is hope:

The questions cover a wide range of topics. Some are primarily political, others focus on scientific, legal or economic aspects. If you have views on some questions and not others, do not hesitate to send an answer covering only these questions.
Jolly good, then, we don't have to be comprehensive, just do what we can. For starters, Nomad was kind enough to create a wiki page to work on a submission...

For this diary, let's concentrate on just the first question:

1. Is the objective of promoting biofuels still valid?

The directive "aims at promoting the use of biofuels ... with a view to contributing to objectives such as meeting climate change commitments, environmentally friendly security of supply and promoting renewable energy sources".

Biofuels also hold out the prospect of new economic opportunities for people in rural areas in Europe and developing countries. One of the Commission's priorities is to explore and encourage new market outlets for agricultural products.
Some commentators argue that:

  • developments since the directive was adopted in 2003 have reinforced the case for biofuels.
  • The importance of security of supply has been underlined as the cost of conventional transport fuels has more than doubled.
  • The challenge of climate change has not become less urgent.
  • The agricultural sector is facing increasing competition, and it has a key role in providing feedstocks for biofuels.
By contrast, others argue that:
  • biofuels' advantages in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and security of energy supply can be obtained at lower cost through other policies - for example, energy efficiency or the use of renewable energy (including biomass) in heating and electricity;
  • the benefits of biofuels for rural areas have been exaggerated or are offset by negative impacts on consumers and the wider economy.
Question 1.1: Is the objective of promoting biofuels still valid?

On the consultation homepage one can already find three documents submitted by "stakeholders". Let's see what they have to say about question 1.
Forest Products Biotechnology group at the University of British Columbia [PDF]

Yes. 1st-generation biofuels still have a long way to go towards reinforcing the security of fuel supplies; in countries with significant biomass reserves, including France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the UK, Poland, etc. the potential supply of these fuels coul be significant. Moreover, industrial success with 1st-generation biofuels (i.e., those that are derived from foodstuffs or food residues and which are commercially available today) is starting to enable real investment in 2nd-generatin biofuels (i.e., those derived from non-food biomass which can be used in conventional vehicles and distribution systems). When 2nd-generation biofuels reach commercial status, the potential supply of these fuels in Europe will be a statistically significant portion of light vehicle fuel demand. The impact of these fuels will continue to provide employment in the agriculture and forestry sectors, will reduce volatility of fuel prices by increasing the security of fuel supplies, and wil have a beneficial environmental impact by reducing fossil carbon emissions. THE PROMOTION OF EXISTING IOFUELS TODAY IS ENABLING NEW TECHNOLOGIES THAT WILL INCREASE THE SUPPLY AND IMPACT OF BIOFUELS IN THE FUTURE.
Novozymes A/S [PDF]
Novozymes finds that developments since the directive was adopted in 2003 have reinforced the case for biofuels. The importance of security of supply has been underlined as the costs of oil have increased. The challenge of climate change is still there and alternatives to liquid fossil fuels  are still very limited.
The technologies involved in biofuels have improved continuously over the last years thereby allowing bifuels to become increasingly cost effective. However it is also the opinion of Novozymes that Europe should not base itself on only one alternative to fossil fuel, but look at all potential ways of securing energy supply and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so the possibilities of biofuels should be pursued in parallel with other technologies.
Novozymes would like to add that whereas security of energy supply and climate change may seem to be the main reasons for a continuous promotion of biofuels in Europe the effect on job creation should also be empasized. The biofuel area requires intensive R&D resources, which allows for the creation of a significant amount of knowledge based jobs and the agricultural sector will benefit from job creation in rural areas, which is particularly important after the CAP reform in Europe.
Furthermore the development of advanced technologies will potentially allow for future technology export from Europe.
The third submission is an actual academic paper with footnotes and stuff! As such, it does not follow the question-and-answer format favoured by the Commission, but it's well worth a read.
Adrian Muller: An organic farming perspective on the production of biomass for energy use [PDF], Department of Economics, University of Göteborg
Biotechnology is seen as a promising option to curb greenhouse gas emissions. There is, however, a potential competition for land due to increased demand for biomass resulting in increased food prices. This also would exacerbate future global water scarcity and negatively affect the food security of poor countries depending on cereal imports. Furtheron, the question of how a sufficiently large amount of biomass for energy production could be grown sustainably needs to be addressed. Conventional agriculture often has negative effedts on the environment. Organic agriculture is one sustainable alternative. Burning significant quantities of organic matter, however is incompatible with the principles of organic agriculture. Nevertheless, there is potential for sustainable impplementation of small-scale, on-site bioenergy projects, in particular in developing countries, and also of some forestry practives to harvest biomass for energy use. On the other hand, large-scale production of biomass for transport fuels is likely to be particularly unsustainable. To assess the sustainability of bioenergy on project level and as a global strategy, detailed differentiation is necessary. This paper combines these issues focusing on the potential challenges related to sustainable bioenergy production and its potential incompatibility with sustainable agricultural practices.

We are obviously not going to base our submission on these three, but it is useful to know what people are saying. What I suggest is taking a look at the 2003 directive [Google HTML conversion of this PDF original] and looking at the "whereases", that is, the rationale behind the directive, and debunking (or reaffirming) each one of them. For instance, the ones pertaining to climate change:


(6) Greater use of biofuels for transport forms a part of the package of measures needed to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, and of any policy package to meet further commitments in this respect.

(22) Promotion of the production and use of biofuels could contribute to a reduction in energy import dependency and in emissions of greenhouse gases. In addition, biofuels, in pure form or as a blend, may in principle be used in existing motor vehicles and use the current motor vehicle fuel distribution system. The blending of biofuel with fossil fuels could facilitate a potential cost reduction in the distribution system in the Community.

would be shown by the above FT charts to be misguided, as according to them biofuels cannot be solution to the problem of fuel supply for transportation.

In the comments to Jerome's diary there are additional sources both from old ET diaries and freshly contributed by commenters.

What say you?
. Too much work 0%
. The Commission will ignore our input anyway 66%
. This is un-protagonist-like 0%
. Let's do it! 33%

Votes: 3
Results | Other Polls
My apologies for another copy-paste-fest.

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 02:19:23 PM EST
Someone should do an analysis of the impact of eating less meat. The amount of land and energy devoted to meat growing, slaughter and transport could be compared to using the same resources for a combination of more vegetable food and biofuel raw material.

I'm sure this idea will go over big with the McDonald's crowd...

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 02:43:26 PM EST
I have read there is a 10:1 ratio of resources for each step up in the food chain, so could we save 90% of the energy used to grow cattle feed by becoming vegetarians?

It used to be that the less fertile land was used for grazing cattle, but I suspect nowadays cattle is not grazed but enclosed and fed with the product of more fertile land? Is that correct?

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 02:49:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Cattle breeding is still mostly confined to less fertile areas. However, intensive rearing methods (pig farms, battery chicken operations) mostly use feed made from crops grown in more fertile cereal-growing zones, so in that sense you're right.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 03:02:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A recent corporate cattle effort was created in Texas. The feedlot is next to the farms which grow the feed for the cows. The milk for the cows is delivered to a nearby factory where it is turned into the fake cheddar that passes for cheese in the US. This is then sold to the hamburger chains and other fast food companies.

When the cows milk production falls off they are shipped to a nearby slaughterhouse. You have to admit it is very "efficient". Hundreds of acres devoted to making fake cheese. Just imagine the difference if the fake cheese were made from soy beans instead (like tofu).

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 03:17:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not only cheese, but meat from old milk cows. Yummy! (not)

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 03:18:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A great deal of what is currently sold as "beef" is old milk cows. Especially cheaper supermarket cuts and food-industry beef products (burgers, frozen and quick-heat dishes, etc). There's no obligation in Europe (nor in the US afaik) to label it "OLD MILK COW".

And, of course, you can lable "Farmhouse Cheddar", but not "Fake Cheddar" ;)

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 03:57:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Probably the main reason I'm a vegetarian is because I know what goes into commercial meat - it's not just old cows, it's the less appealing parts of old cows.

And don't forget the energy requirements don't end at slaughter. The assorted body parts are then processed, stored (in cold rooms, if you're lucky - for a long time if you're not) and distributed.

What would be hugely interesting would be the energy requirements needed to get a frozen lasagne onto someone's plate.

Re: biofuel - doesn't it depend on which sort? Ethanol is energy intensive, but I'd guess methane farming, while smelly and unpleasant, would be much less so. How much methane would the sewage from a large city produce, and what would the energy equivalent be?

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 07:09:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They have a technical name for that: biogas.

As for gathering methane from city waste... you must have missed Nomad's smelly diary

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 07:52:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The EEA report I link to in my comment below handles energy from waste too. (It considers bioenergy under three sections: agriculture, forestry, waste; forestry covers mostly use of wood for heating; waste includes both agricultural and domestic).

As for agriculture, certainly we have to distinguish between biodiesel (rapeseed/sunflower-seed oil to be used in diesel engines) and ethanol (alcohol to be used in petrol/gasoline engines) -- and then again between different crops used to produce ethanol, since there are considerable efficiency differences. (Sugar cane > sugar beet > maize/corn > wheat etc).

Personally, as far as Europe is concerned, i'm afraid of a scramble to obtain subsidies for ethanol operations based on dubious efficiency, on the part of agri-lobbies (sugar-beet and maize in particular). Ethanol is being touted by pundits as a miracle fix for oil worries. Which it ain't gonna be.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 03:27:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And not to forget the enormous amount of water resources used for meat production.
by Fran on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 05:45:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This idea is unpopular with ME. I eat mostly meat because I don't like vegetables. Sometimes I have some pasta or potatoes, but most days, it is just meat. With jam. If I can't have my meat with jam I get very cranky. So, hands of my meat, veggi-man. Let's stop flying instead! I don't like to travel, so I will have no problem giving that up.
by someone (s0me1smail(a)gmail(d)com) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 04:48:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I read somewhere that you actually use more oil if you bike one kilometer, having eaten meat as your energy source, than if you drive that same kilometer, because there is so much oil used to generate meat calories (7 for 1 or something like that).

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 05:19:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I read somewhere that if you stand on your head you think better.

(Just a vain, cynical snark...;))

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 05:54:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
we should drive on an empty stomach?

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 06:11:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I voted Let's do it! because, of course, I've already said I'm willing to have a stab at this.

However... There is a lot of work involved. I'm still reading the European Environmental Agency report:

How much bioenergy can Europe produce without harming the environment? (pdf)

and have found this recent (January 2006) communication from the Commission:

An EU Strategy For Biofuels (pdf)

The report covers more than biofuels (also bioenergy from forestry i.e. wood etc for heating). The communication focuses on biofuels, and suggests the consultation we are working on.

If I had to answer question 1 at this stage (not having read the consultation offerings you link to above, but will by tomorrow!) I would say, yes, but in a carefully-regulated way regarding environmental concerns as well as public spending concerns (meaning there are people lobbying for subsidies to get ethanol factories going that might not be efficient, and there's an atmosphere of "Let's force the issue and get investment now so there'll be no going back later").

Sorry I can't do any better for the moment. Will try and get back by tomorrow evening. Now I think there's a football match...

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 02:58:42 PM EST
The 2003 directive was a development of the 2001 Sustainable Development Strategy, which has just gone through a review and update process. The current Sustainable Development Strategy (scroll to the bottom of the page for links to documents) is fresh out of the oven as it was adopted on June 15-16 2006. It even has a new website (distinct from the one I just linked).

One of the most annoying things about the EU's websites is that when new developments render them obsolete there are not retired (and replaced with a simple redirect to the new site) but are kept there without making a lot of effort to make it clear that yes, this is obsolete and here is the newer version.

Nothing is 'mere'. — Richard P. Feynman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sat Jul 1st, 2006 at 08:34:07 PM EST
There's a difference between what we should do, what we'd like to do, what we will probably do, and what we are forced to do. These change over time. And we all have different attitudes, individually.

But better information always informs better decisions. And the more any particular problem can be seen to fit into a pattern of problems, the more likely something useful will be done about it. Which is why I support these efforts, but am not knowledgable enough to contribute to them. I am learning though - and if I can learn then anyone can learn.

I think we would all agree that the overall problem is sustainability. Sustainable consumption, sustainable growth, sustainable life.

If we are talking about energy as one of the crucial sustainability questions, then I think we would also all agree that there is not one magic bullet solution. We should advocate percentage reductions in every detail of our energy use as societies and as individuals.

Crop biofuels and biogas are one of these. As a mass solution they require large and expensive changes in both infrastructure and inconversion into other forms of energy. As a local solution they have immediate applications. IMHO decentralized energy production is the key advantage for biofuels.

BTW I support the guy in Finland who drives round picking up used cooking oils, as a free service, from the deep fries of Chinese restaurants etc. He filters it and uses it on his farm. It is possibly not very efficient, but it makes you wonder where the 1000's of litres of used oil that he doesn't collect goes...

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 04:13:12 AM EST
We should advocate percentage reductions

and from asdf below
first try to reduce the existing promotion of bad technologies.

An anecdote from this afternoon. I was talking to a guy from an agricultural co-operative who knows what's going on in local farming. He says there are plenty of farmers interested in buying (co-operatively) in to oil-press equipment to make their own biodiesel from their rapeseed and sunflower-seed crops... But not at current oil prices. They make more selling their crops for oil for human consumption than they would save on buying diesel fuel which they pay low tax on. So only a much higher oil price (and/or normal taxation) would finally persuade them to bite for biodiesel.

Me: That's a pity because it could significantly reduce petro-dependence in farming and reduce CO2 emissions.

Him: There's a lot more they could do immediately to reduce oil-based fuel use. Change tilling methods, in particular. Stop ploughing and tilling in several passes, and use direct sowing techniques -- the standard methods use 60 litres diesel fuel per hectare, direct sowing uses 16 litres/ha.

That's a 73% reduction in oil use.

(Note: direct sowing does involve investment in new machinery). (Re-note: no, the guy I was talking to doesn't sell machinery ;))

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 04:53:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My input to the comission will be very clear.

They should inmediately put order and stablish clearly the amount of land needed. They should have a investigating group on the need, output and work of biofuels.

There are too many interests out there...difficult to distinguis among them.

I think that a strong input about the lack of credibility in the problem is the main obstacle to policy in this case.

It seems that the work of checking the data is too much for a small community without the basic knowledge in agriculture (people study four years and there are a lot of research out there).

SO, on this topic I think they should hear our voice..we need a formal paper of the whole comission about biofuels...and this report shoudl be done from the university.. not a think tank.. not a company.

This would be my input...you can not do policy with a mess.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 04:16:20 AM EST
Has anyone seen the full FT article Jérôme quoted from? Jérôme, if you have it, can you email it to me?
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 12:58:43 PM EST
Instead of promoting one technology or another, it seems to me that it would be better to first try to reduce the existing promotion of bad technologies. After all, if we didn't have such huge subsidies for gas and oil, then alternative energy technologies would be better able to compete. If you promote a technology there are lots of risks:

  • You get into a "subsidy war" where one side is dumping state money into (say) fossil oil and the other side into (say) biofuels.

  • You take a big chance on choosing the wrong technology. Electric cars had a huge government subsidy and went nowhere (for a range of reasons), but hybrid cars had no subsidy (at least initially) and there have been almost 1,000,000 sold in the U.S.

  • Distortions in your local electoral system are magnified. There's huge support for Ethanol fuel in the midwestern corn (maize) states of the U.S. because, duh, the senators want to get re-elected. It has nothing to do with whether it's a good idea, though.

  • You hold back development of other possibilities. How can someone concentrate on developing a better battery, for example, if all the government money is going to diesel or biofuel technology?

As has been discussed here in the past, governments should apply taxes that capture the social cost, and should do so at the point in the process where the tax least distorts the market. That's at the well, in the case of oil, or at the refinery depending on exactly how you do it...
by asdf on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 03:55:53 PM EST
Good points, asdf. What you say about the push for ethanol and maize/corn-producing areas holds good here too. (Yet another way corn ends up as pork? cough cough...)

And there's an essential point you make that we should put forward: if we promote biofuels, what other solution(s) are we choosing in consequence not to promote?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 04:26:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I found a useful glossary in the "EU Strategy For Biofuels" communication and posted it on the Biofuels Consultation page in the ET Wiki.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jul 2nd, 2006 at 05:30:05 PM EST
An EU Strategy For Biofuels (pdf)

is important because it is a new-development document based on the need to redefine the 2003 Biofuels Directive. It is this document that calls for new work on the Directive by the end of 2006, and therefore the Consultation we are hoping to contribute to.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Jul 3rd, 2006 at 07:01:44 AM EST

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