Interview: biofuel-expert André Faaij

November 26, 2012 | 00:00

Interview: biofuel-expert André Faaij

"EU biofuel policy is addressing the wrong issue"

With its latest proposals to cap the production of first-generation biofuels, the European Commission is threatening to wreak havoc on the European biofuels sector, and undermining its own decarbonisation programme, warns bio-energy expert Professor André Faaij of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. According to Faaij, European policymakers are addressing the wrong issue. "They should focus on how to organize the synergies between food and fuel rather than wasting time on theoretical models of land use changes that do nothing to improve matters in the real world."

André Faaij - (c) Studium Generale Universiteit Utrecht
André Faaij, Professor of Energy System Analysis at the Copernicus Institute at Utrecht University, and one of the world's leading experts on bio-energy, is deeply concerned by the course that European biofuels policy is currently taking. Faaij, who is an advisor to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the United Nations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and many other public and private organisations, warns that the latest proposals from the European Commission, if adopted, will make it more difficult for the market to develop "strong alternatives for current fossil transportation fuels".

So what is the problem? In 2009 the EU set a target for 10% renewable transport fuels by 2020 and a 6% reduction of (lifecycle) greenhouse gas emissions for all transport fuels also by 2020. Since then, however, food-based biofuels have come under heavy fire. Critics say the production of these biofuels leads to undesirable land use changes in developing countries and contributes to higher food prices. Some also argue that their production does not always lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the influence of these criticisms, the European Commission has recently come up with new proposals that are intended to limit the use of food-based biofuels. Specifically, the Commission wants these biofuels to contribute no more than 5% (or half) of the 10% target, This leaves little room for growth, as they are already good for 4.7% of transport fuel use in the EU.

According to the Commission's proposal, EU Member States must end all their support for food-based biofuels by 2020. Instead, they must give incentives for the production or use of advanced (so-called second and third generation) biofuels, produced from inedible crops such as trees and grasses, agricultural or urban waste or by growing algae.

Another key change in policy is that the biofuel industry will henceforth have to report on the so-called indirect land use change (the "ILUC factors") caused by the biofuels they produce. When forest is turned into agricultural land to produce biofuels, this can have a negative impact on greenhouse gas emissions, which the ILUC factors have to account for.

In addition, the biofuel industry has to speed up improvements in the greenhouse gas savings of the overall biofuel mix. Specifically, new biofuel facilities will have to achieve 60% greenhouse gas savings, already in 2014 rather than in 2018. The Commission's new biofuels proposals still have to be approved by the European Council and the European Parliament.

Faaij agrees that it is vital to promote the growth of "advanced" (non-food-based) biofuels, but he feels that the Commission's proposals will make this harder rather than easier to achieve.

What is your main objection to the Commission's latest proposals?

With the recent policy changes the European Commission aims to cut further growth of biofuels that are derived from food crops, the so-called first-generation or conventional biofuels, because it wants to prevent the risk of non-agricultural land elsewhere, such as forests, being brought into production. Instead, it wants to promote the use of second-generation biofuels, made from wood, grass, and waste, which require more advanced technologies.

I am a great supporter of trying to accelerate the use of second-generation, advanced biofuels. These have more potential and a better climate performance and they should be supported. But capping the use of food-based crops for biofuels is not the way.

The cynical aspect is that off the record representatives of some of these NGO's admit that they put forward un unbalanced view, but they simply keep campaigning for reasons of media exposure
These conventional biofuels are needed as a stepping-stone to advanced biofuels. Second-generation biofuels are not yet commercially viable. Technologically, they are at a stage where it is almost possible to take the leap from demonstration projects to full-scale production. But the existing, conventional industry is needed to develop the infrastructure, industrial processes, supply chains and markets for advanced biofuels. What the Commission is doing now is to intervene in this gradual process by capping the production of first-generation biofuels, which will also hurt the development of second-generation biofuels.

What this proposal also ignores is that EU sustainability standards have been continuously raised in recent years, which has led to a marked improvement of the sustainability performance of the food-based crops.

Rather than capping the production of first-generation biofuels, the EU should develop and implement strong sustainability criteria to prevent unsustainable practices and stimulate good environmental and socio-economic performance. Leave it to biofuel producers to comply with these criteria. The current debate and the unstable policies from the EU – in combination with the surprisingly obstructive position of a number of NGO's – are creating a highly uncertain investment climate which is threatening to wreak havoc on the European biofuels sector.

How do you explain the current negative attitude towards biofuels?

Originally, in the 1990s, the development of the European biofuel market was promoted to stimulate the use of set-aside land in Europe and to create additional income mainly for German and French farmers. At this time the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) also welcomed the upcoming biofuels industry as an instrument for additional investments in food production and in agricultural efficiency and innovation. Former FAO director Jacques Diouf called biofuels part of the solution towards rural development and a sustainable food supply. In the following decade the biofuels sector was increasingly welcomed also for its ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector. Environmental NGO's were supportive as well.

However, in 2008 biofuels got caught in a 'perfect storm'. First, biofuels were accused of contributing or even causing the food price crisis in that year. Various key organisations such as WFP, FAO and the World Bank could freely point at the small biofuels sector for causing a worldwide food price crisis, whilst hiding their own failure to help improve efficiency, stimulate innovation in agricultural practices, and open food markets for farmers in developing countries. In retrospect only a weak correlation was found between biofuels production and food price rises. Decisive factors were increased food demand, declining stocks of agricultural commodities, poor harvests in critical regions and especially speculation. Nonetheless, biofuels were caught in a powerful food-versus-fuels frame. This continues to impact public debate and EU politics to date.

Secondly, also in 2008, an article was published by Timothy Searchinger, a law graduate, who has no scientific background on the subject, and who raised alarm about the greenhouse gas performance of biofuels. He claimed that as a result of indirect land-use change, biofuels did not make a net contribution to greenhouse gas reductions. His analysis ignored existing scientific work which has found that with increased agricultural productivity and efficiency there will be enough land for growing both food and fuel crops.

Halting growth in biofuel production will simply lead to more coal, oil and gas being used instead
Overall, Searchinger's paper was based on crude assumptions and ignored existing scientific work that showed the bigger picture: improved agricultural management creates enough production area to also produce sustainable biofuels. As such it presented weak evidence, but since it was published in Science Magazine, by a scholar, funded by the German Marshall Fund, who held a position at the prestigious Princeton University, it had a profound impact on public debate. Later it was shown that his estimates of biofuel greenhouse gas emissions were too high. However, based on Searchinger's article a great number of environmental NGO's raised the alarm and started a campaign against the use of biofuels. This has led to a very unbalanced debate, with a number of NGO's in a position to seriously obstruct an industry that is essential in the European plans for a sustainable energy supply.

The cynical aspect is that off the record representatives of some of these NGO's admit that they put forward un unbalanced view, but they simply keep campaigning for reasons of media exposure. They deserve blame for refusing to change their position in the light of the facts. The worst of it is that halting growth in biofuel production will simply lead to more coal, oil and gas being used instead.

Furthermore, the ongoing debate about the sustainability of biofuels has definitely been in the interest of existing large palm oil users, such as Unilever and other corporate players. Unilever has openly admitted that palm oil is their key resource and entrance of new parties to this market has a negative impact on their profits.

Fortunately, a large number of players today understand that biomass and biofuels present the only alternative for a serious reduction of fossil fuel use in transportation (as well as the only alternative feedstock for biobased production in the chemical industry). Many governments are aware that they should continue to promote bio-energy. Similar to the EU, the US and China have programs for developing and deploying advanced biofuels.

So how should EU biofuels policy be changed in your view?

Pressure on biodiversity, deforestation, competition with food supply and climate change are all critical sustainability themes.

This whole alarm is based on a virtual reality that can only be quantified through models that do not capture full reality
It is therefore very good Europe has a keen eye for sustainability risks that might be involved in the production of biofuels. You definitely want to avoid that biofuels production causes rainforest to disappear, or competes with food production. But that is the whole point, since 2008 when these concerns were raised, scientists were asked the wrong question. We were not asked what could be done to prevent possible land use change from happening. Instead we were asked to calculate the possible risk for land use change per crop. But to calculate a risk is not the same as saying that it will occur.

This whole alarm is based on a virtual reality that can only be quantified through models. It has little to do with how things work in the real world. Even if we don't produce biofuels, agricultural land will expand and forest will be lost. The real challenge to address is how to integrate food and fuel. A biobased economy requires a good integration within the existing agricultural and livestock sector. Negative impacts on land use can be overcome by looking at synergies between food and fuel, such as further integration of meat production and biofuels, agricultural innovations and efficiency or investing in biomass from degraded land. We have powerful examples of how integrating food and fuel production has led to rapid increases in agricultural efficiency that substantially reduce land use. The biofuel sector has demonstrated that it can trigger important investments in both set-aside lands and degraded areas and to stimulate proper land use and better governance of rural areas. That is what we should continue to build on.

Consider the world's largest biofuels production sectors, the maize/ethanol complex in the US and sugarcane/ethanol in Brazil. In these countries biofuel production is strongly interwoven with conventional agriculture and meat production. Over the past decades these sectors have mutually strengthened each other. For sugarcane or maize farmers, biofuels represent an additional source of income, which makes investments more attractive. As a result Brazil has turned from a middling sugarcane producer in the 1960s into the world's market leader. The sector has become very profitable and as a consequence been able to invest substantially in advanced environmental schemes. There is no food versus fuel issue in the case of Brazil. On the contrary, biofuel producers are in a position to stimulate sustainable development by investing in increased efficiency of land and water use.

Today, the amount of land used for the production of biofuels is very small compared to that for the food and feed industry.

If the biofuels sector has to show its sustainability performance, why is there not an indirect land use change certification system in place for the full 5 billion of hectares that are globally available for food and feed production?
Of all land globally used for food production only about 1% is used for biofuels. Compare this to the over 60% of land that is currently used for the diary and meat sectors. The sustainability impact of biofuels is marginal. Needless to say, biofuel production should not contribute to unsustainable land use expansion. But the same criteria should apply to other sectors. Monitoring meat production is much more pressing than monitoring crops, since this sector is expanding considerably and is hardly monitored. It seems a start is now being made with certification schemes for the meat production chain. It is urgent to get a grip on governance and sustainability in this sector.

Indeed, it makes a lot of sense to expand the sustainability criteria for biofuels to other sectors. If the biofuels sector has to show its sustainability performance, why is there not an indirect land use change certification system in place for the full 5 billion of hectares that are globally available for food and feed production? In the end, our scientific understanding of land use change and ecological and socio-economic development related to biofuel production has increased our ability to define strategies for much more sustainable land-use in the future. The most important connection between biofuels and better agriculture is an economic one; the new demand for sustainable biomass and sustainable biofuels can bring (part of the) much needed investments and better governance in rural areas and proper land use.

What is your advice for Europe's biofuel industry?

Be the most sustainable sector and lead the way. Try to overcome the impasse resulting from the 5% cap the EU is proposing for the classical biofuels crops. Work pro-actively on producing biofuels and bioenergy under the highest sustainability criteria.

The sustainability reporting obligation is the great opening the EU is offering the industry in its proposal. The sector can show sophisticated policies for sustainable biomass production and land use. Through indirect-land use modelling we have worked on establishing a baseline for a sustainable practice and we know what should be done to avoid risks. Now, we are able to monitor and control. Biofuel companies can communicate their sustainability performance, including their greenhouse gas performance, in a transparent way. Thus, the sector is able to prove it is taking the necessary steps to avoid indirect land-use change.

Don't underestimate the potential benefits the European biofuels industry has to offer. If producers manage to improve agricultural efficiency under strong sustainability criteria, they will be able to create global impact. In this way biomass and biofuel can turn into a driver for improved agriculture, like they have been for Brazil, or for the palm oil regions. We need incentives for good practices, not penalties that lead to stagnation and more use of expensive and polluting fossil fuels.

About the author

Loes Knotter ( is an independent management consultant and writer based in Amsterdam. Previously, she worked for the Dutch sustainable energy company Econcern and for the sustainability program "theGrounds" of the Schiphol Group.


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