Apparently, the current European Commission’s long term strategy is now formally not to have one.

On Wednesday, this Commission formally mapped out, in the first step in a long legislative process ahead, its much awaited perspective on what it thinks the European Union’s longer term climate abatement goals should be to 2030. This perspective is dubbed the ‘2030 Framework on Climate and Energy’.

The Commission proposed, as expected, no longer term extension or increase to the 10% renewables-in-transport target set for 2020 (that target will be achieved almost entirely by sustainably produced biofuels.) But it went one step further today and dropped an EU goal for reducing the greenhouse gas intensity of fuels used in road transport.

Currently, under the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive, EU Member States are required to oversee a 6% carbon intensity reduction of  fuels by  2020 versus a 2010 baseline; the law applies to suppliers of gasoline, diesel and biofuels used in road transport, and  to gasoil used in non-road-mobile machinery.

So after 2020, the Commission thinks we can quit worrying about carbon emissions in transport. Great, I’m relieved to know.

But seriously, you’d expect the Commission, which is supposed to look out for the interests of all Europeans, not to play the shrinking violet in the face of pressure on such important transport and environmental issues.

Transport emissions account for 25% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions; and by 2020, transport will be the largest source of carbon emissions in the EU, according to the EU’s own forecasts.

The Commission has been feeling the heat in past months from certain Member States on high energy costs (which the region has had for years but which have become a political problem only recently because of Europe’s depressed economy) and from Big oil companies, many of which — though certainly not all — hate and moan about alternatives to oil.

By not proposing any renewables-in-transport target nor any new extension to reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of road transport fuels in Europe, this Commission is effectively throwing up its hands on important environmental issues as it counts down its term, which ends later this year. Moreover, it is choosing to ignore recommendations in several reports, including some  from the Commission itself, according to which, sustainable biofuels, like Brazilian Sugarcane ethanol, are still the one solution to curb carbon emissions in EU transport cost effectively, at scale, and doing so in an environmentally responsible way.

The Commission tried to explain itself, in a rather hollow way, by saying: “The focus of policy development should be on improving the efficiency of the transport system, further development and deployment of electric vehicles, second and third generation biofuels and other alternative, sustainable fuels …”. Nevertheless, we already know that electric cars  can be as pollutant as fossil fuel based vehicles. And the incentives for advanced biofuels are simply not there.

It also claimed, again unsuccessfully, that “it is clear that first generation biofuels have a limited role in decarbonizing the transport sector.” That’s bunk.

The biofuels industry has proven through all sorts of sustainability efforts, as required by EU law, that sustainably produced biofuels are a better environmental alternative to gasoline and diesel. Brazilian sugar cane-based ethanol can achieve over 70% greenhouse gas emissions reductions versus fossil fuel– and that’s certified by independent authorities; it also causes minimal direct and indirect environmental impacts.

This Commission had an opportunity to lay out a necessary plan to address Europe’s longer term transport and environmental challenges by including such things as a longer term target for sustainable biofuels to give industry investment confidence. Judging by today’s proposal, it is still unclear how the Commission expects the EU to reach its goal to reduce GHG emission from transport by 20% in 2030, when it’s effectively pulling the policy incentive-rug out from underneath producers.

Fortunately there is much debate ahead on this matter.

This formal opening salvo from the Commission today is the start of a process that probably won’t reach a final conclusion until 2015. New Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and new European Commissioners (the heads of all the various EU departments, like energy) will takeover by the third quarter and all of this new blood will have, hopefully, fresh and informed perspectives on this matter.

A flavor of what is to come is scheduled for March 20-21 when the EU’s Environment ministers will meet to discuss the Commission’s plan announced today. Stay tuned.

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.