European bioethanol offers 15% CO2 reductions in transport – blocking it is a form of climate crime

james-coganBy James Cogan, industry, technology and policy analyst with Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd.   

Special to The Digest

There should be no cap on the amount of sustainable European bioethanol energy counted towards the EU’s 2030 carbon emissions goals.

The European Commission in Brussels is right now putting the finishing touches to a Communication on Transport Decarbonisation, due out this summer. A Commission Communication is the closest thing there is to an EU law without actually being a law. If it’s good it will set direction on transport decarbonisation for the next twenty years and go a long way to saving the planet from catastrophic climate change. It is a precursor to Europe’s 2030 climate legislation. The Communication was announced[1] in April 2016, with a planned publication date just 2-3 months later. The process is – as per standard procedure – managed internally by the relevant Directorates General so it is not plain to the outsider how it looks in the drafting period.   There is a risk the Communication may support fossil friendly caps on sustainable European made bioethanol.

Transport decarbonisation is very important. Currently Europe generates and dumps a coachload of climate damaging carbon dioxide into the sky each week for every man, woman and child. A third of this comes from transport, mostly driving around in cars. As a community of 500 million people with 250 million cars we recently made a solemn pledge to reduce our carbon emissions by – a possibly insufficient – 40% by 2030 in a desperate bid to keep the Earth’s temperature increase to below 2°C.  That’s no easy task. The Commission officials working on this Communication will be challenged to come up with workable, effective and environmentally friendly measures for 2030.  Right now we’re losing the climate change battle. Fossil oil is being taken the ground at a greater rate than ever and big oil continues investing in it.

Ethanol opportunity for 15% emissions reductions

Bioethanol made by Europe’s bioeconomy, when blended to a fifth the volume of normal petrol, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by at least 15% in the petrol sector. That’s a giant step towards the 40% target. It’s already being done in parts of Europe at ethanol blend rates between 1% and 85%, averaging out overall at about 4%. We need to get that average up to 20% during the 13 years to 2030.   Farms, filling stations, biorefineries and cars are ready and able to do it. With the right policy will, it can be delivered.

And the other 25% emissions reductions in petrol?

10% or maybe 15% will be got if we incentivise a third or more of new car purchases to be hybrid electric or electric – up from about 1% now – so that by 2030 around 20% of cars on the road would be all or partially electric (remember, it takes 20 years for 1% of new car sales of a certain car type to become 1% of the total fleet on the road). This assumes that most of the electricity they’ll use will come from wind and sun, etc. Our electricity companies are already stretched in the effort to convert existing power demand to renewables, so adding a big chunk of cars and trucks to their to-do list for 2030 is a big ask.

The last 15% will come from a combination of less traffic, smarter traffic (things like group Uber), gas powered cars and a transition from dirty diesel to cleaner, smaller, more efficient petrol engines. This last point is a real opportunity because ethanol blend petrol is high in octane, so leaner.

Clearly in the dozen years to 2030 the hardest 15% to achieve of the three approaches above will be the electric vehicles, so the first and third options will be making up the shortfalls. Then by 2040-2050 the electrics should be largely taking over. Unfortunately we can’t put our carbon reductions efforts on hold until electric vehicles with green electricity are fully viable because the climate won’t wait.

European ethanol is land-use neutral

What about those of us who worry that more ethanol will mean more land or that it might put pressure on food prices and availability? We can relax and stop worrying. It doesn’t work like that fortunately. Ethanol in Europe is made from the sugars in corn, wheat, beet and – in the more advanced processes now taking off – in the left-over straw from farming and in certain varieties of grass and reed grown on marginal land.   Europe is a sugar superpower, making ten times more of it than we eat and preparing to ramp up further after 2017 (it goes to food products we export by the way, as well as to discretionary and uneaten food). And that’s not counting the sugars and starches bundled in the cereals, tubers and dairy that our farmers produce for the animal feed, food and beverage sectors, much of which exits the process as by-product or residue.

At the same time Europe has a massive protein deficit, importing 70% of what we need in our dairy, beef and aquaculture sectors, mostly from South American soya plantations.  Wheat and corn grown in Europe result in equal amounts of valuable protein for the food chain and green ethanol for transport energy. The process used for the separation is natural fermentation and the highly sought after food protein is GMO and antibiotic free, and contaminant free.

This protein-bioethanol mix is an wonderful example of bioeconomy symbiosis. We won’t need so much South American soya if we make more ethanol, nor the forest clearance and awful labour conditions brought about by soya demand. For every patch of land used to make food protein and ethanol in Europe an equivalent patch of forest somewhere in a developing country is not needed for soya meal, while coachloads of fossil carbon stay in the ground where they’ve been for millions of years and where they belong forever.

The roughly 20% of European ethanol not made from wheat and corn comes from sugar beet which is a soil enhancing rotation crop, i.e. grown in between the growing cycles of other crops on the same land, and from residues of field and forest agriculture, known as advanced cellulosic ethanol. The emergence of advanced bioethanol is the equivalent of having discovered vast new reserves of clean oil in our own home state. It’s all good.

A bridge solution

Bear in mind too, that as petrol consumption drops due to electric vehicle take-up and smarter traffic, so too drops the demand for ethanol. Relatively soon the higher ethanol volumes in the petrol blend will be offset by dropping demand for petrol overall and in the longer term – as electric vehicles take over – ethanol fuel will go the way of fossil fuel, becoming virtually extinct (and by which time those biorefineries will be churning out high value biomaterials for non-energy uses). Another reassuring phenomenon is that the ethanol sector still has some Moore’s Law like potential in it. The basic biotechnology processes are clean and natural and thousands of years old – it’s the same as beer and whiskey afterall – but the modern version, from farm to petrol pump, is super efficient and still getting noticeably better every year.

Lastly, Europe has increasingly large amounts of idle or under-used farmland of which just a small part would satisfy even the sharpest imaginable peaks in sugar and ethanol demand in the coming two decades.

European bioethanol, in providing those 15% carbon emissions savings, will never account for more than a few percentage points of EU agricultural activity and those percentage points are eagerly needed and sought by Europe’s farmers and rural economies as it happens.

The real villains

We are all correct to be looking out for the downsides, but in the case of EU bioethanol there really aren’t any.   Those of us dedicated to fighting for the climate and the environment – and that includes the EC, WWF, T&E and Birdlife Europe – should direct our fire squarely at the real villains. Stop palm oil, all of it, until deforestation is put under control. Two thousand five hundred football pitches of forest land are cleared every single day to make room for palm oil and the insatiable demand for it in processed food, cosmetics, soaps, chemicals and, for 5% of it, unacceptable palm oil diesel. Fight fossil oil. Break the link between oil companies and car companies and fight the dirty diesel that ruins the air of Europe’s cities, killing hundreds of thousands of us in the process.

To those who say renewable energy should stand on its own two feet in price competition with fossil energy the answer is no, it should not, so long as the fossil people are not made to collect and safely dispose of that coachload of fossil CO2 that gets dumped into the sky by each of us every week. The ‘level playing field’ with fossil energy is irresponsible nonsense. It’s a dangerous form of climate change denial. Ethanol and other renewables need and deserve continued public backing for as long as cheap fossil oil is the schoolyard bully refusing to clean up after itself. The same goes for all bio-based materials that reduce fossil oil dependency. They all need decisive policy backing.

Policy instruments to make it happen

Some concrete measures the transport decarbonisation planners in Europe can employ to make it happen would be to retable the Energy Taxation Directive revision that was recklessly blocked by a couple of individuals in the Council last year, amplify Article 7a of the FQD, put the car labelling Directive to work and use binding RED-like mandates for EU ethanol anchored firmly to its climate saving low carbon footprint. Current mandates for the petrol sector should be rigorously enforced. Advanced biofuels, as per Annex IX-A of iLUC Directive, should get dedicated policy support to enable those vast new reserves be tapped. State aids for bioethanol should be allowed, as it is for fossil energy in many states. Governments should prioritise bioethanol in their public procurement for captive vehicle fleets. Car and fuel makers should specify high octane fuel which will foster ethanol use and more fuel efficient engines. Infrastructure for high blend fuels should be incentivised.

There should be no cap on the amount of sustainably produced European bioethanol energy – of any type – counted towards the 2030 goals.

The right thing

It is important that the Communication on Transport Decarbonisation give ample account of the opportunity of European bioethanol for 2030 climate action. Europe’s farmers and Europe’s bioeconomy are already producing it and are ready to produce some more. They can be counted upon to deliver 15% carbon emissions reductions. Failing to give adquate policy support to European bioethanol will only strengthen fossil oil, amounting to a form of crime against the climate.


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