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The fox guarding the henhouse – a questionable approach to EU’s energy transition

When the European Commission presented its plan to replace the import of Russian natural gas (REPowerEU), it omitted obvious alternatives such as solid and liquid biofuels, energy from waste, and expanded district heating. This is hardly surprising, seeing as the plan had been led by a politician from the Netherlands, an EU Member State that has failed miserably to transition from fossil fuels, largely on account of its reluctance towards bioenergy and lack of district heating.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans unveils proposals to govern transition to low carbon economy dubbed “European Green Deal” during a press conference at the EU Parliament in Brussels on July 14, 2021. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP) (Photo by JOHN THYS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Dutch Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans is principally responsible for the European Commission’s negative approach to bioenergy in all its forms. This is not only reflected in REPowerEU but is a consistent feature of the entire energy and climate program Fit for 55. Timmermans has led the work both with REPowerEU and with Fit for 55.

The acute European energy crisis and the need to stop fossil fuel supplies from Russia, and thereby the financing of the war in Ukraine, must lead to a reconsideration of the EU’s bioenergy policies. A reasonable first step is to let someone other than Frans Timmermans do the job in the commission. You should not put a fox in charge of guarding the henhouse, as the saying goes.

Firstly, a few words about the Dutch failure. According to the Renewable Energy Directive adopted in 2009, the Netherlands had a target of 14 percent renewable energy by 2020. This goal was achieved according to the official report from Eurostat. However, not without the use of statistical transfers, which is allowed under the Directive. In reality, the Netherlands only reached 11.5 percent and “bought” 2.5 percent from Denmark. Thus, 88.5 percent of the country’s energy supply was non-renewable. Only Malta and Luxembourg did worse.

Furthermore, the 11.5 percent could also be an overestimation, as the Directive allows double-counting for certain biofuels while reporting “normalized values” for hydropower and wind power. The latest complete energy statistics from 2019 show that the Netherlands’ dependence on fossil fuels was the highest in the EU with as much as 90.9 percent, of which 42.5 percent was natural gas, also the highest share in the entire EU.

(Källa: Svebio baserat på data från Eurostat och Bioenergy Europe)

Sweden and Finland have the lowest dependence on fossil fuels. Both countries have invested in replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy. Lithuania has also implemented a rapid transition from imported Russian gas to domestic biomass and waste, mainly in district heating. (Source: Svebio based on data from Eurostat and Bioenergy Europe)

In summary, the Netherlands has the EU’s highest dependency on fossil fuels, the EU’s highest dependency on fossil gas, and the lowest share of renewable energy among the larger EU Member States. The Netherlands was also one of the few countries to fail the 2020 target for renewable energy, even though they had more than a decade to reach its relatively low goal due to their low share of renewable energy.

A couple of the politicians who held leading positions in Dutch politics at the time are now leading the work on EU’s climate policy. The previously mentioned Frans Timmermans was a member of the government between 2012-2014. His closest man in the European Commission, Diederik Samsom, was not a member of the government but he was party leader in the Dutch Labor Party, to which Timmermans also belongs. The Labor Party was a government partner in the Rutte II government, which ruled between 2012 and 2017. Samsom was forced to resign in 2016 after the party was hit by a strong decline in the opinion polls. The party then lost 29 of its 38 seats in the 2017 election.

By then, Timmermans had already taken a seat in the European Commission. From 2019, he became Vice President with overall responsibility for the Green Deal. He then made Diederik Samsom his closest associate by appointing him Head of Cabinet.

The Netherlands’ failure to transform the energy sector undoubtedly lies with the Dutch government, but a great responsibility also rests with the Dutch environmental organizations. Over the years, they have waged vicious campaigns against bioenergy and opposed all attempts to replace fossil electricity and heat production with biofuels and waste incineration. Swedish Vattenfall, which is active in the Dutch energy sector, has experienced this first hand. What’s more, the Netherlands has an unusual decision-making model, whereby environmental organizations are allowed to take a seat at the table when decisions are being made. In practice, these organizations are even given the right to veto various energy and climate decisions, even though they are not elected by the people or answer to the electorate. Diederik Samsom has a background in the Dutch environmental movement and used to be a campaign leader for Greenpeace before entering politics.

This is why it is not surprising that Samsom, and his boss Timmermans, unilaterally favor electrification from wind and solar as well as the development of a hydrogen economy, while dismissing biomass and biofuels. Their worldview is characterized by the situation in the Netherlands, where there is little forestry, almost no district heating, and where most houses are heated with gas.

As far as I can understand, neither Timmermans nor Samsom have any knowledge of bioenergy and forestry. Despite this, Timmermans has stated that Swedish forestry is unsustainable. Timmermans is a diplomat while Samsom has a scientific background in nuclear technology and radiation protection.

The fact that the Netherlands is a gas economy (along with several other EU countries, such as Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Hungary) has had a huge impact on the EU decision-making apparatus. Across the EU as a whole, fossil gas now accounts for just over 25 percent of the total energy supply, with Russia accounting for just over 40 percent of this gas.

Overall, the gas dependency has increased in the past years, as domestic gas production has declined in the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. This, together with the transition from coal to gas power has caused the dependency on Russian gas to increase even further. Representatives of wind power have also affirmed their support for gas since the two energy sources complement each other; when wind production drops, gas power can easily fill the gap.

Thus, most EU Member States are now heavily dependent on gas, and many reject calls to boycott Russian gas to assist Ukraine. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Timmerman’s former chief, and Viktor Orban, the President of Hungary, were the first leaders to oppose possible sanctions against gas imports from Russia to the EU.

The inability of the EU to become less dependent on Russian gas and oil from 2009 to 2020 is now an obstacle when trying to impose harsh sanctions on Putin. The Netherlands’s indolent government and environmental organizations have a particular responsibility for putting us in this situation, together with Dutch politicians in the European Parliament – Dutchman Bas Eickhout from Green Group has over the years been a driving force against bioenergy.

As a result, the EU continues to bankroll Putin’s invasion by buying Russia’s gas, oil, and coal. According to the site Europe Beyond Coal, the EU imports fossil fuels from Russia worth EUR 600 million. Per day. Since the war began three weeks ago, it means more than EUR 12 billion have been added to Russia’s war treasury (see current calculation here), and with the fossil fuel price increases, the sum continues to grow significantly.

When the European Commission proposes how to become less dependent on Russian gas and oil, they are still stuck in misconceptions about bioenergy and waste, spread by the European environmental movement. It is high time to do away with these delusions and include bioenergy in the transition toolbox, just as the EU parliamentarian Emma Wiesner suggested in Svenska Dagbladet (Swedish national daily newspaper) the other day. But then maybe someone other than Timmermans and Samsom should lead the work.

// Kjell Andersson

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