Transport & Environment

by Jos Dings, director of Transport & Environment

April 2015 will enter history as the month in which the EU reversed course on its energy policies in transport. It adopted its long-mooted reform of biofuels policy – especially regarding indirect land-use change (ILUC). The practical implications in the next years may not be so big. But the political and longer-term ones are.

A small recap. In January 2008, ie over seven years ago, before the crisis struck, the European Commission proposed that by 2020 all of the (then) 27 EU member states should source 10% of their transport energy needs from renewable sources. It was clear that this would mostly mean biofuels. Amazingly enough, the member states agreed to subject themselves to this costly and ineffectual policy.

A month later, in February 2008, Tim Searchinger of Princeton University planted the first seed that would eventually lead to last month’s reversal: a paper in Science that for the first time, through a global land-use model, quantified the ILUC effects of large-scale biofuel cultivation, and the associated carbon emissions from ploughing up the land, sometimes preceded by deforestation. As a concept ILUC had been known for a while but full credit to Searchinger here; he was the first to attempt a quantification. And devastating it was: subsequent modelling studies confirmed that including ILUC emissions turn biofuels targets into a very questionable climate policy.

NGOs worked hard to have the new science included in the law but we only partly succeeded – the 2009 law ignored it but instructed the Commission to make a report and, if appropriate, a proposal on indirect land-use change by 2010. Scientists got to work but the Commission did not like the outcome because it showed that many biofuels – especially biodiesel (70% of EU’s biofuel consumption) – were bad for the climate, not good. It took the Commission two more painful and embarrassing years before finally, in October 2012, it published its proposal to cap food-based biofuels to 5% of transport energy by 2020. And it took the Council and Parliament two-and-a-half more years to finally agree.

But here we are. All this is an object lesson in how counterproductive and self-defeating ill-conceived, special-interest legislation can be. All this carries lessons for post-2020 fuel policies, and for biomass policies in general. The lesson is: put quality before quantity.

Meanwhile, the world has changed. Since the publication of the biofuels proposal in 2008, the cost of solar electricity has fallen by a factor of five and the cost of batteries has halved. More cost falls are expected because of the virtuous circle of more scale, more innovation; solar will likely be fully competitive within a decade. In contrast, oil and biofuels are not technologies but resources: the more you use them the more expensive they get – biofuel feedstocks cost the same as seven years ago. Oil and biofuels give windfalls to those who have the cheapest resources and the cheapest land; wind and solar electricity gives it to those with the best technology, to human ingenuity. Photovoltaics is more than 100 times as space-efficient (energy per hectare) as photosynthesis. Moreover, it does not need fertile land; deserts and rooftops will do just fine.

Efficiency and electrification are the way forward for transport. Bioenergy will be a small niche. If that’s the lesson of seven years of blood, sweat and tears, it has not been for nothing.


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  1. Mr Jos Dings:
    >>>> We are very interested in these discussions. We would like to add some further thoughts through this message. As early as 2003 in formulating the Directives on Biofuels we raised concern with EU about the consequences and the “Mad Dash” to make biofuels “using food for fuel,” and the consequences of denuding lands to support biofuel use in preference to foods. The mad dash to supply Ethanol using sugar cane/beet, wheat, or corn etc. and the Diesel from oil palm, peanuts, or soya etc. was a rapid response based – as most would see – on finances. So when the prices of the input material increased the industry could not compete and a many plants set up this way were moth-balled or closed down, as raw material costs were higher than the rewards of manufacture and sales. The loop-holes – enjoyed by the USA and Brazilian manufacturers which were enjoyed at the time were a consequence of this and eventually modified. Making a biofuel ethanol from wheat where the raw materials and production costs were over €450 per tonne compared to a revenue stream of under €350 was never going to be profitable: the same occurred (and still does) when selling sugar as sugar is more beneficial than making ethanol. And as for palm oil and soya oil without the subsidy there was never going to be a profit-making business.
    >>>> This route though need not have ever been the case since as early as 2005 we had routes available to manufacture these biofuels from cheaper non-food and non-crop sources of generic biomass – none of which need have been grown specifically for same. Many of Us and our learned fellows in the EU and beyond had previously reiterated this. There are ample sources of waste materials around which could be used and converted to biofuels, including the various biodegradable fraction of municipal solid waste (or industrial wastes and others) and the even larger quantities of biomass in waste from farming,agricultural, food/drinks production and elsewhere. Farming and agriculture in the EU produces over 3000 Million tonnes of material a year much of which is left uncollected to degrade into a concoction of miscellaneous products including the green-house gases VOCs and ground based liquors that run off in to water courses. It has been confirmed by others that if we collected 40% of this material and used it as a base to manufacture biofuels it could provide the EU with over 120 Billion litres of Ethanol or 50 Billion litres of Butanol fuel per year or 160 Million tonnes of Liquefied Methane Gas for transport as well as produce upwards of 2000 MW of electricity on a continuous base. Importantly though -these biofuels could be produced at €urocents 17 per litre. These materials not affected by climate or wetness so why did we ever bothered to use crops to start with? Such plants as we know are on the cusp of being commissioned and do not need to use Genetically Modified Organisms [GMO] or Modified Enzymes to manufacture and thus do not compromise the issues that BMP/Enzymes create in the EU and beyond. Several major facilities following this route will inaugurated within the next few years.
    >>>> It was noted also that you had mentioned about use of desertified lands and other polluted areas to the use of such biofuels. (Maybe it was inferred on the back of the Photo-Voltaic issue?) This is not the case, as recent developments in the area of Macro-Algae show that these as “sea-weeds and kelps” developed by natural selection (hybrids without using specialised GMO/Enzymes which are against the law in the countries where developed) can be grown in shallow salt-laden/brackish water lagoons built at local inexpensive ways for the programme. These as shallow basins can be built in the simplest of ways – in deserts at barely 400 millimetres deep and will reproduce these sea weeds and the likes so that they can be harvested near continuously (8 to 10 times per year) with the result that the biomass available can be converted to produce Ethanol or Butanol at rates 30 times the yield equivalent of making Ethanol per hectare compared to sugar cane at minimal costs at €urocents 12 per litre. Such is the development of these processes that the fields/lagoons can also use heavily polluted areas of land in brown field and old industrial zones where carbon dioxide is a waste. Three major countries are looking at this system to make higher grade jet and aviation fuels We can also extract very cheap hydrogen fuels as well from these systems and avail them for transport. A cheaper fuel than oil-based fuels do you not think? And a better option for biomass than just burning it as in incineration biomass power plants.
    >>>> In your other notes you mentioned about the issue that it is thought that the comparators of solar and Photo-Voltaic versions of energy will fall dramatically over the time, whereas the costs of biofuels will rise. We disagree as with the developments we see the latter part of your statement is faulted. As we state above. For P-V cells though we see the development of the spray-appled thin-film application as taking over here. This system which can be applied by spraying a P-V system (of less than 3 millimetres thick) onto any surface – new or old – from a bridge (such as the Forth Rail or the Milieu) or a dam wall, or a major tower (such as the Eiffel or of Christ the Redeemer or The Arc De Triomphe) or an office or an airport roof and the likes as well as an individual house is going to be with us within the decade. Further more the system perceived will also be able to store its surplus of electrical energy for future use for up to 7 days and more. And at a cost to install estimated to be less than 20% of the current P-V systems and able to generate an equal quantity of energy per square metre this means that any hose within reason could be a self-sustaining generation plant. The comments we now make are that this is going to be the future for P-V systems which we should be viewing now rather than adapting options that are akready out of date.

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