But no decisions were taken at the high-level meeting convened yesterday (2 May) by Commission Secretary-General Catherine Day, who oversees all departments at the EU executive.
“All the details need now to be worked out,” Isaac Valero, spokesman for Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, told EurActiv. “There was a strong consensus on the need to address ILUC."
The ILUC process happens when forests or grasslands are cleared to compensate for land taken to grow fuel crops elsewhere, thus increasing net carbon dioxide emissions, food insecurity and commodity prices.
The European Commission had been expected to publish a proposal quantifying the indirect emissions caused by biofuels this summer, to separate the lower-emitting biofuels such as ethanol from high-emitting ones like biodiesel.
But the internal decision-making process quickly became paralysed by an ongoing dispute between the Commission's energy directorate, which did not want ILUC factors considered, and its climate directorate, which does.
The vast majority of the EU’s biofuels come from biodiesel made from feedstocks such as palm, soy and rapeseed, which ILUC factors would decimate in the long term, even if ‘grandfathering’ clauses in EU legislation guarantee returns on any initial investments.
Proposals to regulate Europe’s €13 billion biofuels industry thus face strong opposition from the powerful agri-industrial sector, which argues that the science of indirect land use change is too nascent to base policy decisions on.
In January, the incoming Danish presidency of the EU pledged to “prioritise initiatives regarding sustainability criteria for biofuels, specifically … proposals for legislation addressing the indirect land use change impact of biofuels”.
But these proposals will not be published on the Danish watch, which finishes on 1 July.
One well-placed EU source told EurActiv that the process’s “timeframe needs to be defined but [I] don't think that this can be ready before the summer.”
Such uncertainty has tipped the scales from hope to frustration among some environmental organisations.
Sebastian Risso, a spokesman for Greenpeace, told EurActiv that the orientation meeting had only produced “more talk, more delays and still no concrete action”.
Nuša Urbančič of Transport and Environment (T&E), another green NGO, said that if the Commission was taking the indirect effects of biofuels seriously, then it was good news.
“But the bad news is that, after several years, we are still waiting for a legal proposal to get out of the starting gate,” she added.
In the EU’s orientation debate, Commissioners considered three options.
The first proposed raising a greenhouse gas threshold for EU approval of biofuels from 35% to 60% less CO2 emissions than conventional fuels, with a 2016 introduction timeframe.
This would rule out biofuels made from soybeans and palm oil, but not those made from rapeseed which, leaked EU figures suggest, cause greater net carbon emissions than crude oil.
A second option preferred by environmentalists would see the introduction of crop-specific ILUC factors in both the fuel quality and renewable energy directives, providing incentives for the best-performing bioethanols and second generation biofuels.
The blending of the two suggestions was also considered as a compromise solution.
Sources close to the talks said several EU Commissioners spoke up in the meeting for ILUC factors to be included in both directives, while only three or four expressed a preference for increased threshold factors.
But environmentalists warned that time was running out.
“Enough delay and dithering,” Robbie Blake of Friends of the Earth told EurActiv. “Until ILUC is properly dealt with, expanding biofuels for our cars will only cause more deforestation and carbon emissions.”