Science - January 31, 2015

Fuelling controversy

Following the publication of a controversial policy paper by the KNAW, the supporters and opponents of biofuels were at each other’s throats. The rift runs right through the Wageningen research community. But are the different standpoints really so far apart?

‘Research at infant school level’, an ‘unacceptable political pamphlet’ and a ‘piece of selecting shopping around in the scientific literature’. Rarely do such hard words fly around when professors enter into discussion. But Groningen professor of Energy System Analysis André Faaij blew a fuse during an interview with the daily paper De Volkskrant on 14 January. The cause of his fury was a vision paper by the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences (KNAW) about biofuels and bio energy.

The paper argues that the Netherlands should stop using biomass as fuel or a source of energy. According to the authors, Wageningen scientists Louise Vet and Rudy Rabbinge and Amsterdam emeritus professor Martijn Katan, biofuels and electricity hardly reduce CO2 emissions at all. Whereas biomass can be put to much better use to produce plastics or chemicals, products which are currently made from fossil-based resources.

There has been criticism from Wageningen too. Most scientists who are working on sustainable alternatives to products made out of fossil fuels – a biobased economy – reject the view of Vet, Rabbinge and Katan, albeit in milder terms than Professor Faaij. The authors may admittedly flag up a burning issue, says Wolter Elbersen DLO researcher at Food&Biobased Research, but they miss the mark, partly because they pay too little attention to recent research. ‘This is just throwing away the baby with the bathwater.’

Elbersen thinks it is naïve to think that a ‘green’ economy can be created at the drop of a hat. A number of interim stages are required which are only possible if biomass is temporarily used as fuel, he claims. Companies get involved in this market because the production of biofuels is already viable. Their investments make it possible to produce commodities: standard products traded in many parts of the world, such as verge grass of standard quality or pellets of compressed wood. Such commodities are needed as the basis for a fully-fledged biobased economy.


Stop the train

But Louise Vet, one of the authors of the vision paper, is not at all convinced by this argument. Vet, herself the director of NIOO-KNAW and extraordinary professor of Ecology, thinks the main effect of setting up a heavily subsidized industry for biofuels is to create stiff competition for biomass. This limits the scope, she believes, for high-value processing of biomass such as biorefinery. ‘And we must make a real transition,’ says Vet. ‘It is an illusion that you first build up a certain system only to abandon it later.’

Vet is not surprised, though, that the KNAW vision is attracting so much opposition. In a column in the daily paper Trouw she wrote: ‘We are on a train that is rushing in the wrong direction and we, as independent researchers, have stepped on the brakes. Painful for those who have invested a lot in this, financially or scientifically.’ In her view, researchers should be focusing on much more exciting innovations such as artificial photosynthesis or other processes for optimizing the use of energy from sunlight. Biomass should be used first and foremost for food and animal feeds, and then for ‘green’ goods and materials. ‘And if there is some left over and enough nutrients are being put back into the soil, then we can burn the rest of that biomass as fuel,’ says Vet.

This categorization on the basis of value is called cascading – a concept Wageningen biobased experts embraced years ago. ‘All the big research projects working on the replacement of fossil fuels by plant-based fuels pay a lot of attention to cascading and to making optimal use of biomass,’ says Harriëtte Bos, DLO researcher at Food & Biobased Research. Such projects do not just look at which applications will be most profitable economically, they also analyse the environmental impact thoroughly.


Developing countries

Elbersen’s main objection to the KNAW is that it is very dated. ‘Apart from a couple of comments, the article could have been written five years ago.’ According to Elbersen, many of the criticisms mentioned in the document have already been addressed. For example, the authors mention that growing crops for (subsidized) biofuels can lead to competition with food crops and nature. But, says Elbersen, it is already clear that it is perfectly possible to grow a combination of food and fuel crops. As evidence he points to an opinion piece by José Graziano da Silva, secretary general of the World Agriculture Organization FAO, arguing for the varying the amounts of fuel crops grown depending on food prices. This would have a positive, stabilizing effect on food prizes. Da Silva also points out the biofuels can provide a boost for local economies. High fossil fuel prices hold back rural development in developing countries. If farmers can supply biofuels at such times, there will be more local trade, extra income and thus money for investment. This pushes up the price per hectare so that more food crops can be harvested as well.

Louise Vet goes along with this reasoning to a great extent. ‘A lot is possible on a small scale. Not carting biomass around but closing the cycles locally. African farmers boosting their harvests with biomass? Great. But we mustn’t plant crops on a large scale that have to be used as biofuels.’


The vision report also notes that co-firing wood in power stations harms forests in America and Canada. Not true, says Gert-Jan Nabuurs, extraordinary professor of European Forest Resources. In his view, forests do not disappear on a large scale because of the demand for biomass. ‘In recent decades a lot of progress has been made, in fact, with improving forest management and labeling ‘good’ wood, with FSC and PEFC certification for instance. So most of the wood that is used is waste from sawmills or poor quality wood.’ Nabuurs admits that, as the KNAW suggests, wood pellets are imported from North America for burning in Europe. But not at the expense of forests, he says. ‘In the south-east of the US there is intensive forestry in a productive area. Certification safeguards the survival of the forests.’ He does see that the demand for pellets is growing, but says it is compensated for by the declining demand for wood in other industries.

The pressure on forests in Europe is limited too, says Nabuurs. ‘Overall, the volume of wood in Europe is growing faster than the rate of harvesting. Without any negative side-effects you can provide 3 to 5 percent of Europe’s energy from waste and byproducts of wood.’ The aim is to get 20 percent of Europe’s energy from renewable resources by 2020. Biomass can provide part of the solution without any problems.


Don’t promote uncritically

The only part of the vision paper that is broadly supported is its criticism of subsidies for bio-energy. Experts are worried about the negative impact of subsidies and ‘dumb’ incentives on the ‘green’ economy. ‘It is not good to stimulate the production of biofuels and energy from biomass one-sidedly with rules about mixing fuel types and subsidies,’ says Erik van Seventer, business unit manager for Biobased Products and Food&Biobased Research. He is referring to the legal requirement to mix a percentage of biofuel into fossil fuels, as well as to subsidy regulations which make unprofitable co-firing of biomass profitable. These measures undermine the level playing field, because there is no subsidy for making bioplastics, for example, whereas that application is much more sustainable. Van Seventer: ‘So it’s okay that the writers of the vision document criticize that.’

Van Seventer does not think it sensible to dismiss the development of bio-energy and biofuels out of hand. The same goes for uncritically promoting them: ‘We need to continuously ask ourselves whether we are on the right path.’ The debate can only contribute to this, in his view. Vet too is happy that discussion is now going on. Not a bad result for an article ‘at infant school level’

Knaw in the public debate

This was the first time the KNAW has come out with a vision document – two pages of straight talking with eight pages of footnotes. With this new approach (its advisory papers were always longer), the organization wants to make sure its voice is heard. The criticism of the document was no surprise, said Hans Clevers, KNAW president. ‘We agonized over it; I’ll be honest with you about that.’ But, thought Clevers, the risk of controversy was not a good reason to hold back. ‘If we don’t do it, who will? We owe it to our reputation to speak out. We could have written this advice in 30 years’ time, but it is too late then.’ This is not the end of the debate. The KNAW will be running a mini-symposium about biofuels.



The KNAW vision was not only noticed by colleagues and the press. The document was deliberately published one day before the debate about the Energy Agreement in the lower house of the Dutch parliament. During that debate, the Socialist Party, the Christian Union, and the animal welfare party (PvdD) asked critical questions about bioenergy explicitly citing the KNAW. Animal welfare party MP Esther Ouwehand even tabled a motion, still to be voted on, to stop subsidizing the co-firing of wood in power stations.

How is the development of a ‘green’ economy in the Netherlands going?

Read on how the top sectors are frustrating biobased research. Click on the Achtergrond tab for our article (in Dutch) ‘Groene economie op de handrem’.