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Biofuels in the EU: Illegitimacy of Normative Power Europe

Climate change, environmental protection and sustainable development are areas in which the EU has emerged in recent years as a global leader. They have become integral parts of the EU’s normative dimension, one that the EU themselves have constantly tried to promote. Biofuels, a renewable energy source, has been part of the EU’s efforts in climate change mitigation, but has become a controversial issue, due to emerging scientific research that proves that biofuels cause more harm than good to the environment, as well as propagates ill social effects on developing countries because of the global reach of its supply chain. In light of this, the EU does not seem to be a normative power, as it has not made substantial moves in a normative direction to halt the damage of its biofuels policy. This is because the EU prioritizes its economic interests over the environmental and societal concerns related to biofuels.

Since 2003, the EU and its member states have created an artificial market for biofuels through a variety of mechanisms, such as excise tax exemptions, production quotas, blending mandates, subsidies and so on, to meet the 5.75% goal stated in the Biofuels Directive (2003/30). In 2009, the EU increased the renewable energy target to 10%, driving up the market floor for biofuels even more. Today, Europe is the leading global producer of biodiesel, producing over half of the world’s biodiesel output at 9.6 million metric tons in 2010. In 2012, the EU consumed 14.4 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) of biofuels, 79.1% of which is biodiesel.

The issue comes in when one considers indirect land use change (iLUC) effects of biofuels. Essentially, biofuels compete directly for land used for food, and forests are cleared to find more land for the food crops displaced by energy crops, which in turn releases huge amounts of GHG. The energy used in the process of extracting biofuels (farming and transportation) also requires energy derived from fossil fuels, wherein the process might end up releasing even more emissions than biofuels themselves can reduce. One scientific study found that accounting for all these indirect impacts, biofuels actually doubles GHG over 30 years and increases GHG for 167 years.

As such, in 2012, the European Commission issued a new directive to limit the contribution of biofuels to the 10% target at 5%. EU energy ministers in the Council have debated over this value, but have come to no consensus due to division amongst member states. In the meantime, the EU biofuels industry continues to work towards the 10% target, degrading the environment all the while, certainly incongruent to how a normative power is expected to act.

Why is this so? Firstly, the EU is unable to scale back its biofuels policy due to the prioritization of its vested economic interests in the biofuels market, manifested clearly in the powerful biofuels industry lobby that play a big role in EU policy-making.

While at the European level member states can make autonomous decisions, essentially they are still accountable to their electorate at the national level, amongst who exist numerous industrial and agricultural lobbies for whom a reduction of biofuels production is economically detrimental. These include small landholding farmers who grow and sell the feedstock to huge energy companies that convert it into biofuels. Indeed, many environmentalists reacted to the EU’s indecision over reducing the target as the EU succumbing to pressure from self-interested biofuel lobbyists, a sentiment that seems to be true. Because the reservations about biofuels stem from relatively recent research, the European Biodiesel Board, an industry association, has opposed any changes to the original 10% mandate, calling iLUC unscientific and inappropriate for policy-making purposes. The industry accused the Commission of a ‘U-turn’, saying it invested on the original 10% and that a reduction would force plant closures and jobs, with losses of 50, 000 direct and 500, 000 indirect employments in the EU biodiesel production chain.

Secondly, the EU’s economic interests in the biofuels market over its environmental benefits are compounded by the fact that the EU is seen to be practicing protectionism on international trade of biofuels. The EU imposes high tariff barriers on biofuels exporting countries such as Argentina and Indonesia, arguably more efficient biofuels producers than the EU. This has to do with type of feedstock available for biofuels production in the respective regions. Sugarcane and palm oil used predominantly in South America and Southeast Asia, have higher energy yields and lower GHG emissions than the rapeseed that dominates EU production of biofuels. Thus, many argue that the EU should open up its inefficient biodiesel-dominated market to ethanol producers from the South in order to promote more sustainable biofuels. However, the EU continues to maintain, and even increase the costs of biofuels trade with these exporting countries, promulgating the prosperity of inefficient and environmentally harmful rapeseed biofuels over that of more efficient and sustainable ones from the South. Overall, it is difficult to see how Manners’ NPEU would be able to explain why the EU chooses to restrict trade flows and promotion of more energy efficient biofuels, as well as why it allows its behaviour to proliferate negative social impacts in developing countries.  The EU is using its trade leverage to impose rules on biofuels that benefit their economy but diminish their apparent commitment to sustainable development.

Considering the Nuances 

It is possible that the EU’s identity as an interest-driven actor and as a normative power sometimes overlap. Norms can come into conflict with one another. Interests are sometimes aligned with norms. Richard Youngs argues that “normative and instrumentalist dynamics can be seen to set parameters for each other.” For example, as mentioned, the EU cannot come to a decision to reduce the 10% target because it is accountable to a huge agro-industrial lobby domestically, representing not just revenue and profits, but also jobs and livelihoods. The reality is that one cannot be done without hurting the other. Thus, for the EU to ignore the voice of this lobby would also be to turn its back on its people, something also unbecoming of a normative power, especially because the EU artificially created this dependence on the biofuels industry in the first place. Therefore, while it does seem like solely a pure economic interest when the EU ‘caved’ under the pressure of the lobby, a more critical view will reveal that it is to some extent commitment to democracy in practice, and a difficult decision of attempting to balance their domestic obligations as democratic states with the unforeseen negative impacts overseas.

Thus, the argument that the EU is not a normative power with regards to sustainable development certainly does not imply that it is completely devoid of norms and completely interest-driven. Many scholars have done studies on how norms emerge or recede based on the context. In this situation with biofuels, we see that sustainable development is not as highly prioritized as we would expect of a normative power. However, some scholars argue that norms are determined by the interaction between the domestic and regional administrative systems, but also that any incongruence could possibly be resolved through socialization in time. Thus, there may be a point in the future where sustainable development does reach a point of real eminence for the EU such that it is driven enough to act normatively. For example, The point where the EU’s biofuels policy runs into trouble is where the member states become divergent on their views. As mentioned, reducing the target has split the EU into two camps, but this implies that there is a camp that is willing to be ‘progressive’ and take the necessary redemptive steps. This offers us, perhaps, a possible view of a future in which the EU does become a normative power.

- Chen Siyi



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