Exclusive interview with Michael Carus: “The existing political framework is a hurdle for the bio-based economy in Europe”


Michael Carus, managing director of the nova-Institut
Michael Carus, managing director of the nova-Institut

“A comprehensive analysis of hurdles carried out by nova-Institut shows that the RED (which will in future be associated with the FQD – Fuel Quality Directive 9870 – in the transport sector) is one of the main causes of the longstanding and systematic discrimination between material and energy uses. The RED hinders the development of material use and therefore that of the whole bio-based economy. Unfavorable framework conditions combined with high biomass prices and uncertain biomass supplies deter investors from putting money into bio-based chemistry and plastics – even though these would produce higher value and greater resource efficiency”. To say it is Michael Carus, physicist and managing director of the nova-Institut, the German private and independent Scientific Institute specialized in the bioeconomy, one of the most prestigious at the European level. In this interview with Il Bioeconomista, Carus uses the phrase “Misallocation of biomass” to define the effects of the RED (Renewable Energy Directive), since “this is blocking higher value material uses like chemicals and plastics from coming to fruition”. And explains his point of view on the first generation vs. second generation biofuels issue.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso

Mister Carus, what is your opinion on the recent decision of the European Parliament’s environment commission to limit the share of food based biofuel used in cars and trucks to 5.5% of total consumption?

Bio-energy and biofuels are expected to make up roughly 60% of the overall RED quotaand about 90% of the transport quota by 2020. If one were to restrict the bio-energy share of the overall quota and the transport quota to 40-50% and 80% respectively, for example, a significant amount of pressure would be removed from biomass. I suggest that this kind of regulation would be more useful than limiting the share of first-generation biofuels – which often can be much more land efficient than second-generation. The quotas would then have to be filled with a larger amount of solar and wind power and other renewable sources. Limitations on the biofuel share of the transport sector would need to be lower for the time being, since alternatives such as electric cars and CO2 fuels are not yet sufficiently widely available on the market. When they are, then the biomass share of the quota should be reined in accordingly. However, earlier restrictions on the biomass share could help electric cars and CO2 to break through sooner.

In your recent paper “Food or non-food: which agricultural feed-stocks are best for industrial uses” you write that “all kind of biomass should be accepted for industrial uses”. Could you explain to our Readers in few words your point of view on this very important issue?

The choice should be dependent on how sustainably and efficiently these biomass resources can be produced. I therefore request that political measures should not differentiate simply between food and non-food crops, but that criteria such as land availability, resource- and land efficiency, valorization of by-products and emergency food reserves are taken into account. Recent studies have shown that many food crops are more land-efficient than non-food crops. This means that less land is required for the production of a certain amount of fermentable sugar for example – which is especially crucial for biotechnology processes – than would be needed to produce the same amount of sugar with the supposedly “unproblematic”, second generation lignocellulosic non-food crops.

Large companies like DSM and BASF complain of a lack of regulatory stability in Europe. And moving investments in other countries, such as USA and Brazil. What should the EU do to create a more favorable environment for industrial investment in the bioeconomy?

The EU’s bioenergy and biofuel policy, as embodied in the ambitious objectives fixed by the RED, leads to the systematic allocation of biomass to energy to the disadvantage of material use. The RED has triggered the development of national action plans and support systems for bioenergy and biofuels, and this in turn has driven up biomass prices and agricultural leases, making it far more difficult for other sectors to get their hands on biomass and distorting prices. “Misallocation of biomass” is the right phrase here, since this is blocking “higher value” material uses like chemicals and plastics from coming to fruition. Therefore, RED-linked developments on the ground will have a considerable impact on the future availability of biomass for the materials industry.

A comprehensive analysis of hurdles carried out by nova-Institut shows that the RED (which will in future be associated with the FQD – Fuel Quality Directive 9870 – in the transport sector) is one of the main causesof the longstanding and systematic discrimination between material and energy uses. The RED hinders the development of material use and therefore that of the whole bio-based economy. Unfavorable framework conditions combined with high biomass prices and uncertain biomass supplies deter investors from putting money into bio-based chemistry and plastics – even though these would produce higher value and greater resource efficiency.

According to McKinsey by 2020 global demand for biobased products could grow to 250 billion euros. How can European industry be ready to face this challenge?

We urgently need a new political framework for the most efficient and sustainable utilization of biomass. That means especially a level playing field for material and energy use. Five years ago this was a world wide problem – today it is mainly a problem for Europe. In America and Asia the political framework for bio-based chemicals and plastics is much more favorable than in Europe. Accordingly, most of the new investments are going to US, Canada, Brazil, Thailand, Malaysia and China.

From your point of view, is sufficient in Europe today the collaboration between industry and academia to support the development of the bioeconomy?

This is working fine, except the implementation of pilot and demonstration plans. But the main problem is the existing political framework, which is a hurdle for the bio-based economy in Europe.

2 thoughts on “Exclusive interview with Michael Carus: “The existing political framework is a hurdle for the bio-based economy in Europe”

  1. Sophie 2 September 2013 / 3:04 pm

    Hear more from Michael Carus on the issues raised above and much more at the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology in Brussels from 30 Sept-2 Oct. http://bit.ly/efibspeak

  2. Dario 2 September 2013 / 3:21 pm

    Interesting arguments…

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