Robert Vierhout is Secretary-General of eBIO. He previously worked at the European Parliament and with Deloitte & Touche as a senior public affairs consultant and started providing EU political and strategic insight for the European ethanol sector nine years ago. In this extensive interview which was first published in September’s edition of Renewable Energy Magazine’s sister publication Energías Renovables, Vierhout discusses and disputes many of the accusations thrown at the biofuel sector.
Interview date: September, 2009
Interviewer: Antonio Barrero
Some say bioethanol production contributes to hunger around the world
Over the last two years a defamatory campaign has been waged which blames biofuels for a number of issues related with the global food market, such as food shortages and price increases. The campaign has mainly been orchestrated by NGOs founded by companies such as Unilever and Nestlé. In any event, the controversy raised has no solid scientific foundations. The problems which bioethanol is claimed to have caused already existed before biofuels started to be produced at a commercial level.
In other words, according to eBIO, energy crops are not taking land away from food crops
There is enough land for both food and energy crops. If we look at the use of cereals in the European Union (EU), it is immediately apparent that bioethanol is only a marginal consumer of cereals. In fact, approximately only 2% of all cereal crops are used to produce bioethanol, while 63% are converted into animal feed. Furthermore, the EU has grain surpluses which could be used to produce biofuels, not only to reduce these stockpiles and therefore limit the extent to which they distort markets, but also to fight climate change and reduce dependence on oil. Bioethanol production in the EU is also an opportunity for developing nations.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has repeatedly stated that avoiding the dumping caused by these stockpiles of cereals would play a fundamental role in reducing hunger and misery*. Bioethanol produced in the EU represents an opportunity to use these cereal surpluses in a way which lessens market distortion. This will help developing nations build up their farming sectors, which is key to increasing local food production and alleviating poverty. The fact that biofuels are not responsible for the food crisis and the increase in raw material prices can also be justified in another way: raw material prices have actually fallen, while we are producing more biofuels than ever.
* Until the end of the 1990s, the EU Agricultural Policy heavily subsidised cereal harvests leading to surpluses which were sold cheaply on international markets, encouraging dumping (selling at below production cost) which farmers in developing countries could not compete with.
Ethanol production contributes to deforestation in the Amazon and other jungles. Is this true?
No. It has not and will never be proven that ethanol production causes deforestation of the Amazon rain forest. On the other hand, the increase in meat consumption has been recognised as the main cause of deforestation. According to the latest Greenpeace reports, the increase in meat consumption has been recognised as the main cause of deforestation [the document to which Vierhout refers is a 140-page report entitled “Slaughtering the Amazon” published in June 2009. In this report, Greenpeace concludes that 80% of the deforestation of the Amazon rain forest is due to a single factor: livestock farming. The word “ethanol” is only mentioned once over the 140 pages of the report and in a context which is unrelated to deforestation].
Some say that although bioethanol produces less greenhouse gases in the exhaust pipe (than gasoline), it results in more emissions than gasoline if one examines the entire production process. In other words, bioethanol produces more greenhouse gases during its entire life cycle than it avoids.
Only life cycle analyses commissioned by the US oil industry come to that conclusion. Appendix V of the recently published EU Renewable Energy Directive should be consulted in this regard. From an environmental perspective, biofuels have been proven to be much better biofuels than fossil fuels. Firstly, fossil fuel reserves are limited, while biofuels are produced from renewable sources. The plants used in their production (e.g. sugar cane, corn, wheat) absorb carbon dioxide as they grow through photosynthesis. Biofuels not only avoid global warming, they also lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. One should examine not only "chimney mouth emissions" but also total [carbon dioxide] production across the entire chain of production. Furthermore, chemical components of biofuels are less harmful than those contained in fossil fuels.
Some say ethanol production consumes too much water.
Not at all. Ethanol production does not lead to water shortages. The “water footprint” of bioethanol is the total amount of water needed to cultivate the biomass and produce the bioethanol. There is a growing concern about whether the growth in biofuel production will require higher volumes of water. I can tell you that bioethanol produced in the EU strictly complies with the most rigorous of environmental criteria regarding water consumption. In this regard, I recommend you read the reports available on the ethanolrfa.org website.
They say ethanol is expensive for governments that promote its use through various measures.
No, what is expensive is the financial crisis. Furthermore, governments are increasingly turning to obligations [regarding consumption], in order to avoid the use of tax incentives.
Some say that Europe depends on bioethanol imports because it does not have enough hectares of land to produce the bioethanol it requires, and that these imports come from countries that are heavily affected by the impact of the industry.
It is not true that Europe does not have sufficient land to produce ethanol. There is enough land available. Less than a year ago, 10 million hectares of farm land in the EU was not being used.
Are the biofuel targets imposed by EU legislation realistic? [The EU has set a target that 10% of all vehicle fuels consumed in the EU should come from renewable sources by 2020]
Yes, of course the EU objectives are realistic. According to the European Commission, a target of 14% for biofuels would also be possible.
After moderate growth in production in 2007 (11%), European ethanol production rose considerably in 2008. Why?
The Member States are slowly but progressively increasing their objectives in line with the aforementioned Directive 2003/30. This means we will produce more. The total rise in EU production in 2008 was mainly due to the increase in production in France, which doubled from 539 million litres in 2007 to 1000 million litres in 2008. Consequently, France became the largest ethanol producer in the EU in 2008, followed by Germany, which also boosted production to 568.5 million litres (+32.5%). The third largest producer was Spain with 317 million litres.
What is the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance (GRFA) and what differences are there between eBIO and GRFA?
The European Bioethanol Fuel Association (eBIO) is an industry association representing European bioethanol producers and other leaders in market assets in the entire bioethanol value chain (technology suppliers, investment banks, etc.), while the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance (GRFA) is an international federation representing global renewable fuel production in over 40 different countries. Its main objective is to raise awareness about issues that are believed to be of common interest to all biofuel producers, irrespective of where they operate. The GRFA also tries to make the industry more visible to United Nations organisations. In short, eBIO and the GRFA are two different associations: eBIO actively promotes bioethanol in the EU, while the GRFA is a global association working in the wider area of renewable fuels. It should be emphasised that eBIO is one of the founding members of the GRFA.
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