Nuclear energy is facing a paradox in France. With the high-speed train, it is considered as one of the national industrial successes of the second half of the last century, allowing France to be in the best-in-class for low-carbon electricity production in Europe. But it is still not an object of consensus in the public, albeit in net progress. More than half of the polled citizens believe, in 2022, that nuclear energy is a rightful pathway to generate electricity, thanks to the war in Ukraine that is creating a valid fear that the forthcoming winter could be severe if natural gas supply is restricted.
A paradox as the French generally show pride for and trust in their engineers and technicians. The likely origin of this lack of enthusiasm, exposed by respectable historians, is the former USSR, active in its support of the left parties and radical activists in Germany, and France by sheer proximity, in the 1960s and the 1970s, support used as a “soft” weapon to fragilize the West nuclear dissuasion during the Cold War, which relied on deadly missiles installation on Western Europe soil. Using the powerful and ominous images of military usage of nuclear energy to promote a supposed lack of safety and the generation of dangerous waste in civil usage. Fear mongering is far more efficient than rational risk analysis, especially when it involves a complex and recent technology.
The paradox also applies to biofuels, especially in Western Europe, agricultural powerhouses, where most of the inhabitants have close or, at least, recent, a few generations at worst, family links with agriculture. Popular support is wide, in France, even when farmers stage noisy and smelly protests in urban centers. And, so far, so-called “first-generation” biofuels supply chains do belong to the agricultural sector, either for the raw materials or the transformation into ethanol or biodiesel. Anti-biofuels activists like to call them agrofuels. So, who is the 21st century “USSR” supporting the biofuels-bashing we have been facing in the last ten years, after a decade or more of enthusiastic, at least benevolent, support?
Not the fossil liquid fuels manufacturing industry. Big Oil has accepted for a long time the decline to come, actually plays today an active part in the biofuels value chains, first as users, partners with the upstream agroindustry, now as full-blown producers, retrofitting redundant crude oil refineries into biorefineries, giving a second life to thermochemical processes like hydrogenation, this time of biomass-based lipids.
Big Food could be a more likely suspect. This downstream part of the food chain, transformers of staple crops and retailers, is typical of the capitalist model, maximizing profit by buying cheap, selling at the highest price compatible with the spending power, combined with a desire for plenty, rationalizing the product and the transformation to the lowest cost. Distracting even a small part of the land production in favor of (bio)energy can be disturbing the upstream part of their business.
Just think about the ever-active controversy, more than 10 years after the events, regarding the role of biofuels in the food market convulsions at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, that led to famines and political upheaval in the Middle-East (the so-called Arab Springs). Serious ex-post analysis does show the obvious and major roles of unfortunately regular, unpleasant and unwelcome, climate events (droughts), inadequate logistics and cash and forex shortages in this crisis, but does not deter activists to blame land grabbing for bioenergy. And the blockade of cereals exports from Ukrainian harbors has been the last episode of this. When the first cargo that sailed away from Odessa this summer, after many months of blockade, had so many difficulties to find a buyer, can biofuels be blamed for that? Seriously?
Still, Big Food is just another player in the advocacy world, deep pockets can finance studies and influence groups, but food is also a controversial issue in the West, with attacks on junk food, meat excess, fake organic branding, on too much food for a less and less active society, on low wages paid to the salespeople, front-line actors during the pandemic, not the perfect coat of the white knight.
The real enemy may be more linked to the evolution of our society in the second half of the 20th century, so well described in Gary Gerstle’s “The Rise and Fall of The Neoliberal Order.” When the power to steer the society towards the uncertain future has shifted, to an extent, of course, from the traditional elites to the civil society, the media, the influencers, the NGOs (that have expanded from racial and anti-colonialist struggles of the 1960s to social, then societal, topics, like environment or immigration), making political life a daily fight to react in the face of the latest fad of the immensely diverse civil society, instead of strategizing for a better future.
Within this diversity, the under-current of de-growth, anti-capitalist, activism is significant. In mobility, fossil fuels sunset, from the lack of affordable future resources (deep sea, arctic regions, tight oil) or from the inclusion of negative externalities (CO2 tax), would send a strong price signal and drive downward demand, as will electromobility, or hydrogen-powered mobility, which are likely never to come as cheap as the Internal Combustion Engine ecosystem.
Biofuels, in contrast, offer a prolongation of the thermal engine civilization, with a cost of production that can be at times on par with fossil fuels, just consider the situation in Brazil since the 1970es. Then, biofuels become fair game for de-growth activists, land use change being an amazing example how regulators, non-elected politicians wary of this activism, can throttle a booming industry, the first-generation biofuels in Europe. And the same ones that demanded for first-generation biofuels replacement by advanced biofuels now find arguments to denigrate those, for instance using the biodiversity protection to limit woody residues uptake from the forest soil.
Strong scientific arguments, like those advocated with an amazing tenacity by ePure, the European ethanol association, should be the template of how we can together support the bioeconomy against the radicals and make bioeconomy part of the “ecologization” of our society, rhyming with the three pillars of the industrial revolution, which has so elevated our living standard in the last two centuries. The ideology of progress, not regress, growth, rather than de-growth, jobs, rather than unemployment.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).