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Scratching the surface of the biofuel sustainability debate

The publication of the Communication on low emission mobility by the European Commission in late July and the announcement of the upcoming new Renewable Energy Directive put biofuels, once again, in the front stage.

And this inevitably made it irresistible for stakeholders to push forward as many reports, blogs and opinions as possible to convey their arguments with the Commission. Many of these publications have a common point: to criticize the whole conventional biofuels world. This is not the first time I express my regrets and frustration with this black and white approach. As I have repeated over and over, not all biofuels are created equal and each of them should be evaluated based on its true environmental impact.

The fact is that none of the recent publications addressed founded criticism to sugarcane ethanol, which despite being a conventional biofuels has among the highest emissions saving performances. Even Laszlo Varro, chief economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA), who recently strongly criticized biofuels alleging “ugly questions about sustainability” said that “if I had to write a list with the world’s best designed schemes for investment in renewables, countries such as Mexico and Brazil would be there”. With 45% of energy coming from renewables, Brazil has one of the world’s cleanest energy mix and sugarcane is the #1 source of renewable energy. Sugarcane is mainly used to produce ethanol that reduces emission by 90% on average, in addition to bioelectricity. For me, the words of Mr. Varro are a clear proof that some conventional biofuels are better than others!

Now, the question is: how is the Commission going to distinguish among conventional biofuels on the basis of their individual environmental performances? This is a difficult political decision to make. However, in practice, this is what the scientific evidences tell us: there are sustainable conventional biofuels even when you scratch the surface!

Géraldine Kutas