WTO compatibility of biofuels sustainability criteria: The Argentinian complaint

Argentina has requested consultations, the first step in the WTO’s dispute settlement procedure, with respect to the EU’s biofuels sustainability criteria, contained in RED, its renewable energy Directive. The development of biofuels criteria per se is full of pitfalls. For starters, the EU’s Directive has effectively skirted the issue of sustainability. As all students of environmental law and policy have been told ad nauseam, sustainable development has three pillars (ecological, economic, social), not just the one (ecological /environment) which the Directive has quantified. On social and economic impact of the EU’s regime, the European Commission is merely to report. Evidently, quantifying all three is not straightforward: witness also the demise of the Clean Development Mechanism, CDM,  one of the flexible mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

With respect to the environmental pillar, RED employs a standard value of CO2 emission reduction which for soybean biodiesel (the main export of Argentinian biofuel) is 31%. This falls short of the 35% required for renewable energy to count towards Member States’ renewable energy targets (and co-inciding fiscal and other incentives).  In other words, fuel not meeting the standard can still be imported into the EU: but it will not be very popular (one can sense a de facto /de iure discrimination debate). One way of getting around the issue, is for individual shipments to show that they meet the 35% threshold with all the extra costs this implies (arguably imposing a measure equivalent to a quantitative restriction), or for the European Commission to recognise relevant voluntary schemes meeting the higher threshold through certification. An Argentinian scheme presented to the EC was not accepted by it.

The Argentinian request includes a long list of GATT and WTO obligations which it argues are infringed by the EU (and by relevant Member States implementing measures).

Having a Panel and Appellate Body express some rules of thumb for sustainability criteria (which Argentina explicitly says it does support in principle) would be very useful indeed.


Preussen Elektra confirmed? Bot AG in Essent

Bot AG in Essent, Cases C-204/12 through to C-208/12 Essent v VREG (at the time of writing the English version of the Opinion was not yet available, however it will be soon) summarised the questions referred as whether the Flemish support scheme for renewable energy, which grants renewable energy certificates to producers of such energy only if they are located in the Flemish Region, and which obliges electricity distributors to surrender a minimum amount of such certificates without being able to offer such certificates obtained in other EU Member States, is compatible with the free movement of goods and with the EU’s non-discrimination principle. Directive 2001/77 regulates both renewable energy (or ‘green’) certificates – which are used by a Member State to show its meeting its obligations to produce a minimum amount of electricity from renewable sources – and certificates of origin, which allow an electricity distributors to prove that x amount of its electricity distributed, originates from renewable energy.

The Advocate General did not entertain at length the issue of whether renewable certificates in themselves qualify as ‘goods’ under the Treaty. The Flemish system may definitely have an impact on the import of ‘green’ electricity, with the latter undeniably having been held to be a ‘good’ under the protection of the free movement of goods. If the certificates scheme unjustifiably restricts the free movement of goods, it would at any rate be illegal and in need of proper justification.

Unlike in Preussen Elektra, distributors of electricity could still purchase renewable energy abroad – however such electricity is often more expensive (for it does not receive Flemish government support), and even if distributors were to purchase abroad, they would still have to surrender, after purchase, the necessary Flemish certificates.

The AG notes that the Court in Preussen Elektra allowed the German scheme despite it being discriminatory. This might have been an implicit reversal of the case-law that infringements of the free movement of goods may only be based on the court-invented ‘mandatory requirements’ (of which environmental protection is one; as opposed to those societal interests which are included in the explicit list of exceptions of Article 36 TFEU) where they do not discriminate. That it might have been such reversal  leads the AG to suggest, finding support in the integration principle, that the Court in Essent should make that reversal explicit. However an alternative reading of Preussen Elektra suggests that the judgment was simply poor precedent, especially given that the court did not only ignore the discriminatory nature of the German measure, but omitted at the same time to assess its proportionality. The poor judgment in Preussen Elektra may be explained by the series of harmonising measures in the Internal Market for electricity, which were being prepared at the time of the judgment and which have since entered the statute books.

Despite the AG suggesting such a rare explicit reversal of the Court’s case-law on the free movement of goods, he does not suggest that in the case at issue, the infringement is justified. Among his arguments for rejecting the measure (which also features the argument that the Flemish Region violated a promise made at the time the relevant scheme was approved by the European Commission under State aid rules), the one dismissing the ‘local production’ requirement is probably the least forceful. There is in my view merit in the argument that the relevant Union laws require Member States to roll-out their own, national renewable energy capabilities, and that systems such as the Flemish one may be required to support industry to work towards that goal (see the similar arguments at the WTO level).

The AG’s opinion contains a wealth of suggestions for the ECJ. It is likely that the Court will not take too much of that bait.


Questions referred
'Is a national rule, such as that embodied in the Flemish Decreet van 17 juli 2000 houdende 
de organisatie van de elektriciteitsmarkt (Decree of 17 July 2000 on the organisation of 
the market in electricity), as implemented by the Besluit (Decision) of the Flemish Government
of 5 March 2004, as amended by the Besluit of the Flemish Government of 25 February 2005
on the promotion of the generation of electricity from renewable energy sources, where an
obligation is imposed on the suppliers of electricity to final customers connected to the
distribution network or the transmission network, to submit a certain number of green 
certificates annually to the Regulatory Authority (Article 23 of the aforementioned Decreet);
an administrative fine is imposed by the Vlaamse Reguleringsinstantie voor de Elektriciteits-
en Gasmarkt (VREG) on the suppliers of electricity to final customers connected to the 
distribution network or the transmission network when the supplier has not submitted a sufficient
number of green certificates to fulfil a quota obligation which has been imposed in respect of
green certificates (Article 37(2) of the aforementioned Decreet);
the Regulatory Authority cannot or will not take into account any guarantees of origin originating
from Norway and the Netherlands, and that being in the absence of implementing measures on the part
of the Flemish Government, which has acknowledged the equality or equivalence of those certificates
(Article 25 of the aforementioned Decreet and Article 15(1) of the Besluit of 5 March 2004), 
without that equality or equivalence being investigated by the Regulatory Authority 
in concrete terms;
in fact, during the whole time that the Decreet of 17 July 2000 was in force, only certificates for
the production of green energy generated in the Flemish Region were taken into account when
ascertaining whether the quota obligation had been fulfilled, whereas for the suppliers of electricity
to final customers connected to the distribution network or transmission network there was no 
possibility whatsoever of demonstrating that the guarantees of origin submitted met the condition of
the existence of equal or equivalent guarantees regarding the granting of such certificates, 
compatible with Article 34 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Article 11 of
the EEA Agreement and/or Article 36 of that Treaty and Article 13 of the EEA Agreement?'
Is a national rule as referred to in subquestion 1 above compatible with Article 5 of the then
Directive 2001/77/EC 2 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 September 2001
on the promotion of electricity produced from renewable energy sources in the internal electricity market?
Is a national rule as referred to in subquestion 1 above compatible with the principle of equal
treatment and the prohibition of discrimination as embodied inter alia in Article 18 of 
the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Article 3 of the then Directive
2003/54/EC  of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 June 2003 concerning common
rules for the internal market in electricity and repealing Directive 96/92/EC?'

Flury of WTO domestic regulatory autonomy cases continues: Ontario’s feed-in tariff program illegal

Just before the Christmas break, a WTO Panel ruled at the request of Japan and the EU that Ontario’s feed-in tariff program is illegal under the GATT and TRIMs agreement.  Feed-in tariff programs are a popular means to boost renewable energy. Typically, they imply that producers of renewable energy are nurtured through preferential, long-term and advantageous electricity purchase contracts (either through obliging private electricity distributors to enter into such contracts, such as in the infamous European PreussenElektra case, or such as in the case of Ontario’s law, through employment of a Government Agency which enters into these contracts). Governments are often tempted to throw ‘local content requirements’ into the mix: in the case of Ontario, domestic content requirements must be complied with in the design and construction of the relevant electricity generation facilities utilizing solar photovoltaic and wind power technology in order to qualify for guaranteed electricity prices offered under the FIT Program.

The Panel rejected the EU’s claim with respect to Subsidies, however it did accept that the regime infringed GATT Article III, as well as the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures. The former to me was no great surprise. Infant industry arguments are often made with respect to renewable energy however these do not in my view carry much weight with respect to either solar, wind or hydropower. The finding on TRIMS is encouraging: it shows that the Agreement (I sometimes dub it a mini-MAI) does have some bite.

The EU has had internal issues with feed-in tariffs and the like (see e.g. my paper here on (di)similarities between EU and WTO law on the matter), and (update 5 May 2015) in the UK the Courts are considering the extent to which Article 1 of the first Protocol to the European Conention on Human rights (‘A1P1’), which protects property, shields investors in solar energy from changes in feed-in tariffs.


NIMBY, NIMTO – Wind mills and local planning laws. The High Court in Hemsby.

In May, the High Court confirmed the refusal of the relevant local authority for the building of a wind farm in Hemsby, a seaside resort in the English county of Norfolk.

The usual disclaimer applies: I am not necessarily au fait with the ins and outs of the local planning regulations. The judgment is most certainly not, as some would have it (admittedly in entertaining fashion), a case in which the courts side with David in a struggle against Goliath. Rather, the Court (Lang J) found that the local authorities were within their rights to refuse planning permission, on the grounds that their being built there would go against the inclusion of the site as a protected landscape and site of scenic beauty, in relevant prior planning documents.  Lang J emphasised this as a legitimate exercise of planning judgment. Montesquieu’s bouche de la loi:

(…) many of the provisions of development plans are framed in language whose application to a given set of facts requires the exercise of judgment. Such matters fall within the jurisdiction of planning authorities, and their exercise of their judgment can only be challenged on the ground that it is irrational or perverse (Tesco Stores Ltd v. Secretary of State for the Environment [1995] 1 WLR 659, 780 per Lord Hoffmann, cited by Lang J here).

A good excuse to recall NIMBY, which many will be familiar with, but also NIMTO, which you might be less so. As revealed to me some years back by Dan Esty at Yale, NIMTO may be an even more powerful phenomenon than NIMBY. Not In MY Term of Office: politicians tend to postpone controversial decisions to the next lot (opponents of the scheme involved will of course argue that it is rather the opposite: that local politicians finally have taken a stand).


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