The Fragility of Norms: The Rise and Decline of the Eu's 'sustainable Biofuel' Policy

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW1.1.04 (Tower One)
Nils Kupzok, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
In October 2012, the European Commission proposed a severe change to the existing energy policy: a winding down of the EU’s heavy promotion of conventional biofuels. This turn-around is puzzling, as it ran counter to powerful economic, bureaucratic, and national interests that successfully established policies to promote the use of conventional biofuels throughout the 1990s and 2000s. But not only interest-based explanations of this change are insufficient. From an ideational perspective, one can argue that the normative commitment to achieve a 'sustainable development' was central to the rise of the current promotional policies, but it is odd that the same norm is currently central to enforcing the decline of those policies.

In order to come to terms with the policy-turn, I will propose a change of perspective concerning norm-guided action in policy-making by highlighting its its fragile dimension as engine and subject of change, rather than portraying norms as solid standards of appropriateness. I will argue that the rise of biofuels in the EU legislation relied on the European Commission as a political entrepreneur to construct the notion of 'sustainable biofuels' during the 1990s and early 2000s, which was based on the creative weaving and together of inconclusive scientific studies, perceived interests, and uncertain future expectations. On the one hand, this constructed link between the concrete biofuel-policy and the abstract sustainability-norm was taken for granted and succesfully used to legitimate the current promotion of biofuels. On the other hand, the link turned out to be inherenlly fragile and broke down when central promises that it was legitimated with were put into question by scientific studies in 2007 and 2008. Most importantly in this reagard were studies that identified biofuels as a driver for increasing GHG emission in the transport sector. Subsequently, rhetorically entrapped in the need to legitimate biofuels in the name of a sustainable development, and under pressure or NGOs, IOs, and scientists who now re-constructed the relation between the sustainability-norm and conventional biofuels as one of contradiction, the Commission had no other choice than to propose to take back their own policy.

After having put forward this explanation for the rise and decline of the EU's biofuel-policy, I will use Sabel and Zeitlin's notion of 'experimentalist governance' as the normative standard to evaluate the policy-process. I will argue that from this perspective it is especially the European Council and the general ignorance towards local knowledge that acts as a hindrance to the ideal of an experimentalist process of governance.