Sometimes little things lead you to the most interesting discoveries. A week or so ago I got a new Twitter follower in the shape of Amelia Sharman, a student at the London School of Economics. LSE is of course the stamping ground of BH favourite, Bob Ward, and I was therefore interested enough to go and take a look, and not entirely surprised to find out that Sharman works at the Grantham Institute and has an interest in sceptics.
But it wasn't this that caught my eye.
Biofuels have been attracting a minor surge of media interest recently, after Friends of the Earth published a report claiming that they probably produce more greenhouse gases than they save. Maybe it was this that caused my attention to alight on one of Sharman's papers - the one entitled "Evidence based policy or policy-based evidence gathering? Biofuels, the EU and the 10% target".
Sharman and Holmes 2010 (as the paper is more snappily known) is not publicly available (paywalled here) to the best of my knowledge, but Amelia Sharman was good enough to send me a copy, and I have to say it's pretty amazing stuff.
The paper examines the EU's mandatory 10% target for biofuel use and in particular the way in which scientific advice impinged upon the decision to introduce it. It's a murky tale, which Sharman has uncovered by means of interviewing key players in the policy machinery.
In 2009, when the target was introduced, it was far from clear that biofuels were a feasible approach to greenhouse gas reduction. But the 10% target was introduced nevertheless. As one of the interviewees explained:
The idea is that normally you should not propose legislation until you’ve got the evidence to justify it. 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! . . .”
As Sharman and Holmes pithily comment:
The fact that the EC was endorsing a target without having seen a full impact assessment provides the first indication that motivations other than scientific evidence related to environmental sustainability and GHG emissions reductions played a part in the policy
decision to establish the 10% target.
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. As another interviewee explained:
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 . . .”
Against this apparently slightly frenzied background, policymakers were confronted with conflicting scientific evidence on the viability of biofuels. Key in this debate was a paper by Searchinger et al (2008), which suggested that biofuels actually created more greenhouse gases than they saved, once indirect land-use changes were taken into account.
(As an aside you may have noticed at the start of this article I referred to a more recent Friends of the Earth article, which came to the same conclusion. The supporting result aside, it's interesting to speculate whether the Searchinger paper was published before or after Friends of the Earth stopped campaigning to have a biofuels obligation introduced in the UK.)
But to return to the main thread of this story, the Searchinger paper appears to have been a major bone of contention and the representatives of the biofuels industry seemed to have engaged in some pretty personal attacks on the paper's author in order to help get their policy put in place. However, as well as the Searchinger paper there was also a growing body of scientific evidence that was very critical of biofuels. In addition, although Sharman and Holmes do not mention it, one can hardly forget the words of the UN's special rapporteur on food, who in 2007 described biofuels as "a crime against humanity". The decision to go ahead and introduce the 10% target against this background therefore seems inexplicable.
The policy entrepreneur
So the vested interests were pushing one way and the scientific evidence the other. How was it that the biofuels target ended up finding its way into law? For this we have to thank a mysterious character, who Sharman calls "the policy entrepreneur" (I gather that Sharman and Holmes know who this is, but research ethics quite properly prevent his/her identity being made public).
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?
How indeed? Why indeed?
Sharman explains that the policy entrepreneur was widely seen by the other participants in the policymaking process as being a champion of the transport and biofuels industries and was said to be "dogmatic" in support of the target. The motivation of this single individual, in combination with the political pressure to provide support to the various vested interests involved in the biofuels industry, was a powerful force in bringing the biofuels target onto the statute books.
However, there was still the tricky problem of the weight of scientific evidence against the proposed policy, but this appears to have been no problem to the Entrepreneur. According to the insiders interviewed by Sharman and Holmes:
...internal EC documentation...which supported the decision to proceed with a 10% target was accorded a high degree of influence in the final policy outcome. However, evidence of a more critical bent...did not have the same sway.
Other interviewees were more specific about what had been done:
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. However, none of this critique is intended to suggest that the policy entrepreneur acted in a deliberately malicious or underhand manner. An interviewee suggested that the entrepreneur “. . . probably still had the best intentions (even though he was completely wrong) . . .” (NGO) and the policy entrepreneur themself appeared to see the policy as an arbitrary victim of a values controversy–biofuels
being targeted as the environmental ‘baddie of the day’.
When you think of the description of biofuels as a "crime against humanity", I wonder if a bit more cynicism about the "good intentions" of the Entrepreneur would be in order.
As I suggested above, his identity is not public. But I'm sure there is no harm in us speculating.
Ian Wishart picks up on the story here.