What’s your first-generation biofuels literacy?


Today we celebrate International Mother Earth Day. A day when we  should all stop  and think of how the Earth’s ecosystems provide us with life and sustenance and try to also understand how our actions  impact the environment, and ultimately our survival. This year’s theme set by the UN – “Environmental & Climate Literacy” – couldn’t be timelier.

Many people want to take action on Earth Day by planting a tree or informing themselves on climate change solutions and environmental conservation. However, in today’s era of post-truth politics and information overload, we often struggle to make sound judgements about what is best for the environment  and what is agenda-driven rhetoric. Same goes for lawmakers who are in charge of setting the policies that will lead us to a more environmentally friendly economy and lifestyle.

A perfect example is the issue of conventional biofuels. First generation biofuels have become the victim of misinformation and emotional headlines stating that all food-based biofuels are responsible for hunger and deforestation. The fact is that not all conventional biofuels are created equal, and that climate change itself threatens food security and ecosystems far more than biofuels.

While countries around the world have made enormous strides towards fighting climate change, some of the proposed policies in Europe lack the supporting evidence to justify their adoption. For example, the new Renewables Energy Directive aims to cut the use of food-based biofuels from the current 7% to 3.8% by 2030. MEPs and EU Member States have already started examining the proposal. In the spirit of today’s theme, I urge them to consider the evidence that will help to better understand and inform the options that Europe has to reduce GHG emissions in transports, and reach its Paris Agreement targets. My hope is that the following undisputable facts serve to add sound science to the debate regarding first-generation biofuels, and in particular, one of the most sustainable and available alternatives to conventional gasoline – Brazilian sugarcane ethanol.

– Brazilian sugar cane sold in Europe achieves among the highest GHG emission savings of all biofuels produced at scale: over 70% relative to fossil fuel alternatives and more than 55% when estimated ILUC emissions are accounted for.

– It is sustainable throughout its full life-cycle. In sugarcane fields, carbon stocks amount to 60 tonnes of carbon per hectare (including above and below ground carbon stocks). Sugarcane only needs to be replanted about every six years which reduces tilling of land that releases carbon dioxide.

– It has no role in the fuel vs food or deforestation debate. Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is produced in biorefineries that generate sugar, clean fuel and bioelectricity. It occupies only 1.5% of all arable land in Brazil and is grown 2500 km away from the Amazon rainforest.

There is an urgent need to set the record straight, to listen to facts and not rhetoric, and to make logical choices for alternative fuels and the decarbonization of the transportation sector. Instead, the new Renewables Energy Directive has largely disregarded the evidence and intends to phase out first-generation biofuels completely. This effectively shuts the door to one of the cleanest and most sustainable energy sources to ensure low-emission mobility.

Europe’s leaders often tout that the EU is a leader in the fight against climate change and environmental protection. However, the proposed biofuels legislation is in stark contrast to EU emission goals.  We should perhaps look outside our bubble and learn from other regions. Brazil has replaced more than 40% of its gasoline consumption with sugarcane ethanol, saving 370m tonnes of GHG emissions since 2003, and has done so in parallel with setting strict environmental laws to protect the tropical rainforest. The Agro-ecological Zoning for Sugarcane initiative limits the amount of land to be used for sugarcane to approximately 7.5% of Brazil’s territory, seven times more than what is currently used, and prohibits the clearance of native vegetation to expand sugarcane cultivation anywhere in the country.

Taking time to think about #EarthDay17 and all the benefits a clean environment provides, we should ask the critical questions regarding the choices Europe is making. In the name of “Environmental & Climate Literacy,” these choices should be backed by evidence and not by false, emotional statements. As the UN puts it, “education is the foundation for progress,” and policy lacking scientific justification is the foundation for regression.

Géraldine Kutas

Géraldine Kutas

A seasoned professional specializing in international trade policy, Géraldine Kutas leverages over a decade of experience to strengthen UNICA’s activities across the European Union, the United States and Asia. She has a deep expertise in biofuels and agricultural policies, coupled with extensive exposure to multilateral and regional trade negotiations in agriculture. Ms. Kutas is the author and co-author of several international publications on these topics.

Before joining UNICA, she was a researcher and a professor at the Groupe d’Economie Mondiale at Sciences Po(GEM), Paris, and coordinator of the European Biofuels Policy research programme (EBP). Ms. Kutas has also worked as a consultant at the Inter-American Bank of Development and for agro-business firms.

Ms. Kutas has a Ph.D. in International Economics from the Institut d’Etudes Poliques de Paris and a Master degree in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University, Washington DC.