Jan Paul van Soest: “The aims are contradictory”
Do you understand exactly what we are doing when you read the recent letter about biofuels from Secretary of State Dijksma to the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament? I admit that I’m having difficulty, even though I have recently concentrated a lot on this issue so that I could, together with Prem Bindraban and my Gemeynt colleagues Steven de Bie and Hans Warmenhoven, write the NCEA opinion on biofuels. This was submitted as an appendix to the Letter to Parliament.
Even with this background, a Letter to Parliament like this is still a significant challenge. It discusses conventional and advanced biofuels, ILUC (Indirect Land Use Change), CO2 targets and renewable energy targets, the impacts on developing countries in connection with the coherence targets of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, admixture percentages and the desirability of maximum and minimum thresholds for these, with double-counting being permitted for some quantities and not for others, and all the while with the possibility of fraud with used frying fat. Complicated!
The accumulation of rules and exceptions gives the illusion that we really know what we are doing, and that we are in charge: of course we have clear targets and suitable measures.
But the reality is not under control.
The biofuels letter shows once again that if you have multiple aims, in this case for both CO2 reduction and renewable energy proportions, then targeted management is very difficult. The aims are contradictory. In theory this doesn’t seem to be the case, but in practice they do clash. Then some clever tricks are needed to unite in practice what is irreconcilable. An example of this is the artificial difference between ‘conventional’ and ‘advanced’ biofuels. These kinds of tricks result in fresh misery and debate, on issues such as questions of definition and a growing need for control and enforcement. The link to the original aims disappears. Some biofuels which fall into the ‘conventional’ category are more effective at reducing CO2 than some ‘advanced’ biofuels. There is always the question of occupation of space; agricultural crops do not of themselves threaten food production more than non-agricultural crops. This means that an additional rule is needed for correction or to allow for exceptions.
Instead, we are adding a few more details to the patchwork of interventions
The biofuels letter also lets us glimpse the fact that actions can have unintended consequences. But it’s only a glimpse, as not everything is revealed. Our NCEA report is clearer about this. It now seems likely that it took 10 months for it to be approved for publication: it is clear that the biofuels policy was determined without paying too much attention to a range of international policy objectives, such as the Sustainable Development Goals, and our NCEA report shows that impacts in various fields involve serious risks and that there is an urgent need to review and adjust the policy.
If we are to continue thinking along these lines, then the conclusion is obvious: there is just one main objective for transport: CO2-reduction. This should be implemented simply, ideally with a fixed price per tonne of CO2 emitted, well to wheel, so separated from the issue of where in the chain the CO2 leaves the pipe. The methods used to achieve the target should be left to market players, rather than having detailed regulations prescribing who has to do what. But the resources should be made subject to a number of clear conditions, such as no net loss of biodiversity, and this must apply to the footprint of all fuels and energy carriers. The renewable energy target should be scrapped, as should the efficiency requirements, which make things unnecessarily complicated or even impede the main objective.
So, that clears things up. This kind of simplified control model would make the policy more comprehensible, effective, and economically efficient. That’s not happening at the moment. Instead, we are adding a few more details to the patchwork of interventions. May I propose specifying that advanced biofuels may only be made using left-handed catalysts from countries with a corruption index of over 60, and that used frying fact may only be used for biodiesel if it was only used to fry vegetarian snacks?
Jan Paul van Soest is a partner at De Gemeynt, a cooperative of consultants, thinkers and entrepreneurs.