Industry Pushes For 25% Agrofuel Target
Corporate Europe Observatory, April 2008
Despite clear warnings about the impact of agrofuels (commonly referred to as biofuels) on the world food supplies, those within the industry think that Europe’s 10% target is not high enough. They are pushing for a 25% target by 2030  – and some members of the European Commission appear to be listening to what they have to say.
Corporate Europe Observatory attended the launch of the European Biofuels Technology Platform (EBTFP) Strategic Research Agenda and Strategy Deployment Document (SRA & SDD) in Brussels to find out more about how industry is using this important document – it is set to influence future EU spending on agrofuel research – to push for a bigger guaranteed market and the opportunity to boost its profits, to the detriment of the environment and the world’s poor.
What is the EBFTP?
The European Biofuel Technology Platform was set up by the European Commission to look at the future needs of the agrofuel industry, particularly in terms of research. It has around 145 members, mainly from industry, with members from research institutes and just two from NGOs. The Platform receives funding from the Commission.
It is, in effect, a descendant of the Advisory Research Council for Biofuels (BIOFRAC) and continues its work. BIOFRAC’s chair, Anders Roj of Volvo, together with the vice chairs were asked to work with the European Commission to select members for EBFTP’s steering committee.
The Platform represents a range of industries interested in agrofuels – from car makers to biotech companies. The steering committee was chaired by Luis Cabra from the oil and gas giant Repsol, which is developing ambitious plans for agrofuels in co-operation with Bunge and Acciona. In January this year he handed over to another oil company rep, Véronique Hervouet from oil company Total.
Five Working Groups, drawn from interested players from the world of industry and research, were set up to develop the research agenda (SRA). Drawing on BIOFRAC’s agenda, they have taken the proposal for a 25% target – originally put forward by BIOFRAC – as their overall aim.
Their draft proposals were published online for a brief public consultation and some 600 responses were submitted, Birger Kirkow from EBFTP’s secretariat explained to stakeholders that these had been taken into consideration “where appropriate”. In reality very little of substance changed at all.
Technology Platforms like the EBFTP, were set up by Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potočnik to allow industry to influence research and development priorities on strategic issues. They play an important role in developing European research policy and are seen as a way of ensuring that Seventh Research Framework Programme (ie EU public-funded research) better meets the needs of industry.
The EBFTP, which is the youngest of all the technology platforms dealing with agrofuels, sees its role as in building “synergies” with others platforms, such as the Forest-Based Sector Technology Platform (FTP), the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform (HFP), the European Road Transport Research Advisory Council (ERTRAC), and the Biotechnology Platform (Plants for the Future) – creating a “knowledge based bio economy”.
This move towards industry-driven research fits in with the European Union’s Lisbon Agenda, which aims to make Europe “the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world.” Priority is being given to research into new areas of industry – with little opportunity to question the wider impacts of this work.
In a letter to CEO, Commissioner Potočnik justified the dominance of industry saying: "European Technology Platforms have been conceived as a means to help realise the Lisbon Strategy. The platforms can play a key role in better incorporating industry's needs into EU research priorities by bringing together stakeholders, led by industry, to define a Strategic Research Agenda and to suggest possible directions for its implementation. This is the underlying rationale for the deliberate industrial focus of technology platforms, which was indeed, as you note correctly, reflected in BIOFRAC and is also manifest in the composition of the Biofuels Technology Platform."
The problem with targets
The European Commission is already pushing an agrofuel target of 10% by 2020., much to the alarm of environmental and poverty campaigners. The vast majority of NGOs working on the issue have condemned the target because of the damaging social and environmental consequences and in April 2008 the European Environment Agency’s Scientific Body  called for the target to be dropped. International bodies including the UN and IMF have warned on the impact of agrofuels on food supplies.
A wide range of studies, including some from the EU’s own Joint Research Committee (JRC), have highlighted problems around the impacts of agrofuels – including the impact on food production and prices already being seen, the problems created for small landowners and workers in producer countries and the damage to the environment.
Research has shown that large scale changes in land use will be needed to grow agrofuels, and that doing so will result in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions exacerbating climate change instead of mitigating it. Agrofuels are not a sustainable form of energy – and many question whether they ever can be so.
But the EBFTP has ignored these concerns – raised by many in response to the consultation – and proposed increasing the target to 25%.
Campaigners outside the stakeholder meeting, angered by the proposed target, greeted delegates with a banner saying: “Agrofuels – no solution for oil addiction” and handed out popcorn from a petrol pump. With food prices already rising as farmers switch from growing food to growing fuel, how, they asked, can an increase in agrofuel production be justified?
Civil society groups, including Corporate Europe Observatory, Friends of the Earth Europe, WDM and the Transnational Institute, also wrote to Commissioner Potočnik ahead of the SRA stakeholder meeting to condemn the role of the EBFTP. Why, they asked, should this undemocratic body – which effectively excluded the input of all those who did not support the call for a 25% target – be allowed to determine the EU’s research agenda or hold such influence?
Sustainability on the agenda?
Inside the meeting, the issue of sustainability was less prominent – although many of the speakers seemed keen to show that it was an issue they were aware of. Martin Kaltschmitt of the German Institute for Energy and Environment referred to sustainability as “a critical, very emotional issue”.
Using non-food crops, such as jatropha, was put forward as one solution by Harri Turpeinen from Finnish transport fuel company Neste Oil. His company’s aim was “to get out of the food chain,” he said. “We are completely in line with the tune of the demonstrators outside the building,” he added, completely ignoring the social and environmental threats posed by large scale jatropha plantations, which are as damaging as any other form of monoculture.
“Sustainability indicators” and “sustainability criteria” were put forward as essential to allow industry to show the wider world that what they are producing is acceptable. But the sustainability criteria used by European Commission – outlined by Ariane de Dominicis, from DG Environment – will not guarantee any degree of sustainability – they fail to take account of the big picture concerns around land and resource use (the displacement effect) and ignore many of the environmental impacts, such as the effect on water and soil.
Monitoring future land use patterns and food prices is like waiting for the patient to die before the doctor is called.
Many of the so-called solutions being put forward by industry – such as the use of GM technology to produce more efficient crops and “second generation biofuels” – raise even more environmental and social concerns.
Ulrich Schuur, Director of the Institute Phytosphere in Germany shared his vision of how genetically modified plants could allow improvements in germination or increase the rate of photosynthesis for example.
Some in the audience were left to wonder whether GM plants – rejected as a food source by many European consumers – be allowed to spread across the countryside for use as fuel?
José Manuel Silva, Head of DG Research warned that industry must learn the lessons of the GM debate. “We cannot repeat other cases, like GMOs, where the debate happened after the research actually started,” he said.
Ralph Sims from the International Energy Agency was one of the few to sound a note of caution, warning that scientists had been talking about second generation biofuels since the 1970s but there were no guarantees that they would ever materialise at a low production cost.
“Put stricter speed limits on the highways,” he said. “It’ll cost nothing and you’ll get huge greenhouse gas reductions.”
But for many speakers at the stakeholder event, technology was the way to improve the efficiency and sustainability of agrofuels. Markku Karlsson from the Finnish wood and paper company UPM Kymmene, illustrated new ways of exploiting biomass residues and waste for ethanol.
Dirk Carrez from the Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry (SusChem) showed how in the United States, energy efficiency and renewable energy research funding from the Department of Energy is being used to support a range of companies working in agriculture, transport, biotechnology and the chemicals industry.
In effect, European funding is providing an opportunity for the oil and petrochemical industries to diversify into new areas.
As Swedish MEP Lena Ek said at the opening of the event: “The market is there. Market potential is huge for the industry.”
Although without a European target, the market would not be there – as in the current market place agrofuels cannot compete with fossil fuels in terms of price.
The EBFTP in fact represents a no risk strategy for industry – persuade the European Union to create guaranteed demand and then persuade them to partly fund the costs of developing new products to meet this demand.
Having set up the EBFTP and encouraged industry’s involvement, Commissioner Potočnik seems prepared to ignore all criticism, however well-supported by evidence.
In his reply to campaigners, he did not even respond on the key issue of the 25% target and did not address questions regarding the fundamental sustainability of agrofuels, accepting wholesale EBFTP’s reassurances that technology can solve any problems they face.
He also said he was reassured by the open and transparent process adopted by EBFTP, despite the limited involvement of civil society – and despite the EBFTP’s failure to listen to concerns raised by many people in the consultation exercise.
Indeed many campaigners see involvement in the EBFTP process as futile – and for that reason have chosen not to become official stakeholders. Despite its claims, industry is not interested in considering whether agrofuels can ever be sustainable – it wants to create security for investors. Concerns, it wants us to believe, can be overcome with the power of science. The only real concern is the need to ensure that public opinion does not turn against them – which again (as with GMOs) they seem to think they can achieve by a selectively promoting some of the science and promising greater technological improvements for the future.
In whose interest?
The Commission is spending public money on agrofuel research, providing private interests with a Platform to ‘advise’ how this money should be spent. Seizing this opportunity, industry has proposed a research agenda based on an absurd 25% agrofuel blending target by 2030.
The European Commission says that it is “not in any way bound by the views, results or recommendations arising from the activities of any of the technology platforms”, yet previous evidence suggests it is only too willing to listen to what they have to say. There needs to be a public debate on the role being played by technology platforms.
Corporate Europe Observatory and others are calling on Commissioner Potočnik and the rest of the European Commission to face up to the problems agrofuels cause and impose a moratorium on agrofuel targets – including the target of 10%.
The EBFTP should be dissolved. Research priorities should be determined through discussion between stakeholders without commercial interests, and must not be allowed to be at the expense of societies outside the EU. Research on the real impacts of new fuels, on developing sustainable electric transport systems, and on the relation between trade liberalisation and increased transport demands would all be good places to start.
- Strategic Research Agenda & Strategy Deployment Document, European Biofuels Technology Platform, January 2008.
- WWF and the European Environment Bureau (EEB).
- For more detailed information on BIOFRAC and the EBFTP see The EU’s agrofuel folly: policy capture by corporate interests, Briefing paper, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), June 2007.
- Proposal for a directive on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources, European Commisison, 23 January 2008.
- Suspend 10 percent biofuels target, says EEA's scientific advisory body, press release, European Environmental Agency, 10 Apr 2008
- For the full correspondence between CEO and Commissioner Potočnik see:
- The car lobby for example has successfully blocked a proposed restriction of 120g/km CO2