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Expert in biofuels: EU biofuel policy is addressing the wrong issue

European policymakers 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, says biofuel expert André Faaij.

In the interview "EU biofuel policy is addressing the wrong issue," biofuel expert Professor André Faaij of the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands explains how he believes that european politicians are addressing the wrong issue, when they try to limit the use of first generation biofuels.

“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,” says biofuel expert André Faaij.

André Faaij warns that if the EU Commission’s proposal of 17 October 2012 to limit the use of first generation biofuels to 5 % is passed, then it will be very difficult for the market to develop strong alternatives to fossil fuels in the transport sector. This is because the conventional biofuels are needed as a stepping-stone to advanced biofuels. Second-generation biofuels are not yet commercially viable, and 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. 

Instead the EU Commission should develop and implement strong sustainability criteria to prevent unsustainable practices and stimulate good environmental and socio-economic performance, and 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. 

The unnuanced critic from a number of NGOs has created a situation that can end up blocking for an industry that is essential to Europe’s plans of a sustainable energy supply.  

According to André Faaij, some of these NGO's admit that they put forward an unbalanced view, but they simply keep campaigning for reasons of media exposure. He believes that these NGO’s 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. 

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. 


Even if we don't produce biofuels, agricultural land will expand and forest will be lost. The real challenge is, according to André Faaij, to address 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. 

The example of Brazil 

This is what has been done in Brazil, where the 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. 


André Faaij concludes that of all land globally used for food production only about 1 % is used for biofuels, which makes the sustainability impact of biofuels marginal. Especially if you compare it to the over 60 % of land that is currently used for the diary and meat sectors. Of course the biofuel production should not contribute to unsustainable land use expansion. But the same criteria should apply to other sectors. 

He finishes the interview by stressing that the potential benefits the European biofuel industry has to offer should not be underestimated. 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.  


Source: Knotter, Loes: EU biofuel policy is addressing the wrong issue. The European Energy Review, 27.11.12.

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