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Brussels policymakers lambast crop-based biofuels as California showcases technology neutral approach

The European Commission is sticking doggedly to its plan to phase out crop-based biofuels post-2020 as it prepares to launch its revamped renewable energy policy this winter to supply ambitious 2030 road transport carbon emission cuts, European Commission director for Renewables, Research, Innovation and Energy Efficiency Marie Donnelly told a recent dinner audience in Brussels.

Biodiesel producers attending will have been glad that the contentious issue of Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) in particular appears to have lost some of its hold over commission renewables policy thinking, with Donnelly saying policy cannot be directed by the “moving target” of ILUC rather than “stable, scientific and sustainable” criteria.

But the re-emergence of the “food versus fuel” debate as Brussels’ main bugbear against biofuels in ILUC’s stead continues to cast a pall over the entire biofuels industry. Brussels appears to be basing its drive against crop-based biofuels on alleged “public concern” over the issue, leaving the biodiesel and ethanol industries under equal existential threat despite earlier lobbying efforts to gain advantage at each others’ expense. The commission has declined to distinguish between the two fuels in its future policy supports given that they both “come from food,” Donnelly said.

Efforts by farm and biofuel producers’ associations to fight food vs fuel arguments with evidence of biofuels’ contribution to maintaining European protein balances meanwhile may have again fallen on deaf ears at Wednesday’s European Parliament-hosted dinner.

Despite the lack of room for crop-based biofuels in post-2020 renewables thinking, Donnelly remains confident that Europe can still meet or even beat impressive US progress towards carbon emissions reduction in the transport sector. The revised RED will lean heavily on “advanced” biofuels and technologies to plug the expected supply void left by crop-based biofuels, despite the lack of clarity over the support mechanisms which will be needed to stimulate investment in “advanced” supply at scale given the lack of current commercially viable solutions much beyond biofuels made from waste oils and fats.

While the UK can boast of being the first European market to source its biofuels almost entirely from waste, the country’s already heavy dependence on imports shows the risks that an entirely waste-focused renewables policy runs if it is stretched across the entire European continent with little sign that technology will quickly be able to economically convert alternative solid waste streams into liquid fuels. A recent second generation biofuels project closure in Denmark shows the lack of concrete European policy on renewables is leaving little breathing space as the 2020 cutoff to the existing RED and FQD targets looms.

California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) scheme offers Europe one example of a successful technologically neutral successful cap and trade policy which allows any low carbon fuel to compete on its performance alone, Professor Steven Kafka of the University of California told the Brussels audience. The LCFS scheme “allows for surprises”, Kafka said, leaving room for accelerated growth in the advanced biofuels sector while encouraging performance improvements in conventional biofuels. Biofuels’ share of total California fuel consumption has risen 20% since the LCFS programme started, Kafka said, with biodiesel and renewable diesel consumption gathering pace as these fuels respective carbon intensities decline.

NB/MS 19/10/2016

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