Bioeconomy in Transport Decarbonisation: an offer they can’t refuse

Marlon Brando as don Vito Corleone in The Godfather
Marlon Brando as don Vito Corleone in The Godfather


During my ten years at Accenture in Rome my boss always made a point of checking that in our bids for client work we were making them offers they couldn’t refuse. He’d been inspired by Marlon Brando in the Godfather, without the gun parts clearly. Our business grew from 300 to 3000 people.

The guys and gals at the European Commission in Brussels are right now putting the finishing touches to a Communication on Transport Decarbonisation, due out this summer. A Commission Communication is the closest thing there is to an EU law without actually being a law. If it’s any good it will set direction on transport decarbonisation for the next twenty years and go a long way to saving the planet from catastrophic climate change.

by James Cogan*

Transport decarbonisation is importantissimo. Currently every man, woman and child in Europe is generating and dumping a coachload of climate damaging carbon dioxide into the sky every single week. A third of this comes from transport, mostly driving around in cars. As a community of 500 million people with 250 million cars we recently made a solemn commitment to reduce our carbon emissions by – a possibly insufficient – 40% by 2030 in a desperate bid to keep the Earth’s temperature increase to below 2°C. But has anyone noticed any change recently in how we get from A to B? Are we driving less or buying electric cars powered by clean electricity, or using smaller more efficient engines powered by green fuels? Maybe a bit, but mostly we’re not. The Commission officials working on this Communication are really struggling to come up with workable, effective and environmentally friendly measures for 2030.  We’re losing the climate change battle. Fossil oil is being sucked out of the ground at a greater rate than ever and the big oil people are smugly looking on.

So here’s an offer the Commission can’t refuse.

Bioethanol made by Europe’s bioeconomy, when blended to a quarter the volume of normal petrol, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 15% in the petrol sector. That’s a giant step towards the 40% target. It’s already being done in parts of Europe at ethanol blend rates between 1% and 85%, averaging out overall at about 4%. We need to get that average up to 25% during the 13 years to 2030. Cars, filling stations, farms and ethanol makers are ready and able to do it. Put in Accenture terminology, with the right policy will, it can be delivered.

What about the other 25%?

Well, 10% or maybe 15% will be got if we incentivise a third or more of new car purchases to be hybrid electric or electric – up from about 1% now – so that by 2030 around 20% of cars on the road would be all or partially electric (remember, it takes 20 years for 1% of new car sales of a certain car type to become 1% of the total fleet on the road). This assumes that most of the electricity they’ll use will come from wind and sun, etc. Our electricity companies are already stretched in the effort to convert existing power demand to renewables, so adding a big chunk of cars and trucks to their to-do list for 2030 is a big ask.

The last 15% will come from a combination of less traffic, smarter traffic (think group Uber), a transition back from dirty diesel to cleaner, smaller, more efficient petrol engines. This last point is a real opportunity because ethanol blend petrol is high in octane, so leaner.

Clearly in the 2030 timeframe the hardest 15% to achieve of the three approaches above will be the electric vehicles, so the first and third options will be making up the shortfalls. Then by 2040-2050 the electrics should be largely taking. Unfortunately we can’t put our carbon reductions efforts on hold until electric vehicles with green electricity are fully viable because the climate won’t wait.

What about those of us who worry that more ethanol will mean more land or that it might put pressure on food prices and availability? We can relax and stop worrying. It doesn’t work like that fortunately. Ethanol in Europe is made from the sugars in corn, wheat, beet and – in the most advanced processes now taking off – in the left-over straw from farming and in certain varieties of grass and reed grown on marginal land. Europe is a sugar superpower, making ten times more of it than we need to eat and preparing to ramp up further after 2017 (it goes to food products we export by the way, as well as to uneaten food, luxury food and some degree of indulgency). And that’s not counting the sugars and starches left bundled in the cereals, tubers and milk that our farmers produce for the food and drink markets, much of which exits the process as by-product or residue.

At the same time Europe has a massive protein deficit, importing 70% of what we need in our dairy, beef and aquaculture sectors, mostly from South American soya plantations. Wheat and corn grown in Europe result in equal amounts of valuable protein for the food chain and green ethanol for transport energy. The process used for the separation is natural fermentation. The highly sought after food protein is GMO and antibiotic free and contaminant free.

This protein-bioethanol mix is a cool example of bioeconomy symbiosis. We won’t need so much South American soya if we make more ethanol, nor the forest clearance and awful labour conditions brought about by soya demand. For every patch of land used to make food protein and ethanol in Europe an equivalent patch of forest somewhere in a developing country is not needed for soya meal, while coachloads of fossil carbon stay in the ground where they’ve been for millions of years and where they belong forever.

The roughly 20% of European ethanol not made from wheat and corn comes from sugar beet which is a soil enhancing rotation crop, i.e. grown in between the growing cycles of other crops on the same land, and from residues of field and forest agriculture, known as advanced cellulosic ethanol. It’s all good.

Bear in mind too, that as petrol consumption drops due to electric vehicle take-up and smarter traffic, so too drops the demand for ethanol. Relatively soon the higher ethanol volumes in the petrol blend will be offset by dropping demand for petrol overall and in the longer term – as electric vehicles take over – ethanol fuel will go the way of fossil fuel, becoming virtually extinct. Another reassuring phenomenon is that the ethanol sector still has some Moore’s Law like potential in it. The basic biotechnology processes are clean and natural and thousands of years old – it’s the same as beer and whiskey afterall – but the modern version, from farm to petrol pump, is super efficient and still getting noticeably better every year.

Europe also has increasingly large amounts of idle or under-used farmland of which just a small part would satisfy even the sharpest peaks in sugar and ethanol demand in the coming two decades.

European bioethanol, in providing those 15% carbon emissions savings, will never account for more than a few percentage points of agricultural activity (percentage points eagerly needed and sought by Europe’s farmers as it happens). Want to know more? Pick up the phone and ask the folks at Beta Renewables near Turin or Pannonia Ethanol near Budapest if you can visit. Or ask the people at where your nearest bioethanol plant is and go see them.

We are all correct to be looking out for the downsides, but in the case of EU bioethanol there really aren’t any. Those of us dedicated to fighting for the climate and the environment – and that includes WWF, T&E and Birdlife Europe – should direct our fire squarely at the real villains. Stop palm oil, all of it, until deforestation is put under control. Two thousand five hundred football pitches of forest land are cleared every single day to make room for palm oil and the insatiable demand for it in processed food, cosmetics, soaps, chemicals and unacceptable palm oil diesel. Fight fossil oil. Break the link between oil companies and car companies and fight the dirty diesel that ruins the air of Europe’s cities, killing hundreds of thousands of us in the process.

To those who say renewable energy should stand on its own two feet in price competition with fossil energy the answer is yes it should, so long as the fossil people are made to collect and safely dispose of that coachload of fossil CO2 that gets dumped into the sky by each of us every week. Otherwise, no deal. The ‘level playing field’ with fossil energy is irresponsible nonsense. It’s a dangerous form of climate change denial. Ethanol and other renewables need and deserve continued public backing for as long as cheap fossil oil is the schoolyard bully refusing to clean up after itself. The same goes for all bio-based materials that reduce fossil oil dependency. They all need decisive policy backing.

Some concrete ways the transport decarbonisation planners can employ to make it happen would be to retable the Energy Taxation Directive revision that was recklessly blocked by a couple of individuals in the Council last year, beef up Article 7a of the FQD, put the car labelling Directive to work and use RED-like mandates for EU ethanol anchored firmly to its climate goals contribution.

It’s importantissimo for me personally. Place Schuman in Brussels is at an elevation of 70 metres so rising sea levels are not going to be a feet wetting issue there any time soon. But my house near Rome is a metre below sea level. If our policy makers don’t come up with ambitious and workable measures this summer we’ll know for sure that it’s time to sell up and move to higher ground.

So, to those of you busy in Berlaymont this week on the Communication on Transport Decarbonisation, Europe’s farmers and Europe’s bioeconomy are making you an offer you surely cannot refuse. You can count on them to deliver. It’s up to you now, to do the best thing with it.

*James Cogan is an industry, technology and policy analyst, supporting a range of public and private clients on matters of growth, innovation, technology and policy. He was one of the speakers at the 4th EU Bioeconomy Stakeholders’ Conference last April in Utrecht.   

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