LSE academic’s report slams vested interests behind flawed biofuels policies

An academic paper from the London School of Economics has slammed the influence of an unnamed “entrepreneur” who managed to get governments to adopt climate change biofuels targets despite evidence showing biofuels may be more environmentally harmful than petrol.

The paper, highlighted this morning by British author Andrew Montford, was written by the NZ Ministry for the Environment’s Amelia Sharman, now at LSE and Oxford’s John Holmes in 2010 and published 2011, but never brought to public attention until now.

Sharman and Holmes investigated how biofuels targets became officially adopted in international climate change agreements, and discovered nearly all roads led to one “entrepreneur” whose name they have withheld for reasons of “research ethics”, and his ability to bulldoze biofuels into the international agreements despite a lack of evidence about their effectiveness.

“Almost all interview participants pointed to an individual actor within the EC who had a strong influence on this policy decision but who stirred up a considerable degree of controversy with other actors in the policy network in the process. This leads to two questions: how could an individual within the EC have such a high degree of influence over the policy process, and why did the increasing amount of scientific data questioning the ability of biofuels production to reduce GHG emissions not have more traction in the policy decision?” ask Sharman and Holmes.

“The idea is that normally you should not propose legislation until you’ve got the evidence to justify it,” the paper quotes one of the officials Sharman and Holmes interviewed. “But there, you had the prime ministers and heads of state signing up to a target that no-one had done any impact assessment at all . . . they got them to sign up to these targets, 20% renewables and 10% biofuels, and then only later in the year did they do the impact assessment. And basically they said they didn’t need to [properly] impact-assess the 10% because it had already been approved by the heads of state! . . .”

The controversy has blown wide open in the wake of a Friends of the Earth report suggesting biofuels are not only expensive, but they actually generate more greenhouse gases than petrol once land use changes are factored in.

Commenting on the Sharman & Holmes report, Andrew Montford writes:

“There were several forces acting upon the main players in the policy process. It was mooted at one point that energy security should be a factor in the decision, but in fact since the EU was going to have to import crops to meet the 10% target, it was clear that this was a spurious consideration. Grubbier and less worthy goals – payoffs to various vested interests – appear to have been much more important. Specifically, those involved in the policy process were keen to push investment into biofuels businesses, and to provide a substantial sop to EU sugar beet producers who were unhappy about having to compete in world markets on price.”

Montford’s claims are backed up by another interviewee’s comments in the Sharman paper, indicating biofuels targets are a hidden form of agricultural subsidy:

“There was a huge fight with the European farm lobby. The commission…was desperate to find some candies they could give to the farm lobby. Particularly they were desperate to find a way out, to all the sugar beet producers that was clear there was no future for them once they have to compete on selling sugar. And then the brilliant idea was, oh we can use this sugar for ethanol and in general we can create this subsidised market for farmers and it can allow us basically to hide within the energy policy some of these subsidies that are becoming so unpopular in the agriculture policy. That’s been the initial main driver . . .”

The LSE report adds a number of governments have been lumbered with mandatory biofuels targets based on bad science used for political reasons:

“Some interviewees also indicated that the policy entrepreneur acted as an information gatekeeper, reducing the level of scientific controversy apparent to policy-makers by ensuring that only data which supported the desired end-point was able to influence the final decision-making process. The ability of the policy entrepreneur to command the scientific literature and argue for the benefits of the 10% target both within and outside the EC was identified as a critical factor. This indicates that it was not so much an absence of evidence but an adherence to evidence that was able to tell the desired story.”

There are seriously growing doubts about the efficacy and costs of the biofuels, and a report late last year put the EU officially on notice:

Existing targets for biofuels and other forms of bioenergy are based on flawed carbon accounting and should be revised downwards, a draft report by a panel of 19 top European scientists showed.

“It is widely assumed that bioenergy is inherently carbon-neutral. However, this assumption is flawed,” said the Scientific Committee of the European Environment Agency, the European Union’s environment watchdog.

“The potential consequences of this bioenergy accounting error are immense,” said the draft opinion seen by Reuters.

The report is intended to guide EU policymaking on bioenergy, but its findings apply to policies implemented by other governments around the world, the scientists said.

If the findings are confirmed and heeded by policymakers, it would undermine the case in favor of using biofuels and could lead to a wholesale U-turn in existing bioenergy policy.

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