Ministers block EU proposal to limit some biofuels

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Several European ministers are blocking the EU’s proposal to curb the use of conventional biofuels, while some dispute claims the demand for crop-based oils drives deforestation and food insecurity in other parts of the world.

A majority of EU environment ministers expressed concern over the European Commission’s proposed 5% cap on the inclusion of so-called first-generation biofuels in member states’ renewable energy targets, despite evidence that the fuel can have a worse impact on carbon emissions than conventionally extracted oil.

Leading the calls in last week’s environment council for a weakening of the proposals were a bloc of Central European countries that unofficially dispute the claims that without regulation EU demand for fuels from grain crops like wheat or soy would drive higher food prices and encourage land-grabs in countries producing the monoculture feedstocks.

"In the working group there is very little support for the proposal as framed by the Commission", a Council source told EurActiv. “There are certainly some concerns. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland consider ILUC mainly as a problem for third countries where there is less sustainable agriculture."

There is little evidence of ILUC - which refers to indirect land-use change, or the climate or food price volatility impact of clearing land and cultivating crops destined for biofuel production - taking place within European borders. Therefore, the ministers feel that if supply is kept within Europe, it will minimise the impact of the monoculture cultivation abroad.

“Those countries say that they can easily meet demand without displacing production. They dispute the basic principle of ILUC on that side,” he said. “That is not shared by a lot of governments… My reading is it creates demand in other parts of the world.”

The member states blocking the proposal say a cap on first-generation biofuels may prevent them from meeting the EU’s 2020 target of 10% renewables in the EU’s transport fuel mix.

Industry collapse

Ministers in the 11 March energy council expressed doubts over the science behind ILUC, saying it was not robust enough to warrant strong EU regulation, a position defended by industry.

They fear the collapse of the conventional biofuels industry after a number of countries had already begun investing in the feedstock-based fuels before the EU began advocating a move away from them to sources such as cellulosic ethanol or algae, which are viewed as more sustainable.

Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate commissioner, strongly defended the proposal.

“Allowing a higher cap would significantly diminish the efficacy [of the proposal] to reduce greenhouse gases from biofuels,”she said. “Most first-generation biofuels produce no or very little greenhouse gas savings, when we account also for the ILUC emissions.”

However,Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for energy, last month told energy ministers that the Commission was “flexible” on the cap.

Only the Netherlands, Britain, Belgium and Denmark have expressed support for the use of an ILUC-based accounting model, which would rank biofuel sources according to their lifecycle carbon emissions.

Ed Davey, Britain's climate and energy minister, scolded some fellow ministers, for not taking a tougher position: “We’ve made a real mistake in the EU [on biofuels] and we’ve got to end that mistake, the sooner the better.”

Monocultures

In an interview, representatives from communities in Brazil and Indonesia told EurActiv that the expansion of plants grown for the biofuel market was gobbling up land previously used for food production.

Nilfo Wandscheer, chairperson of the labour union and small-scale farmer in Mato Grosso, Brazil, further described how the intensive usage of pesticides on monocultures was polluting groundwater and fields used for food production.

The Mato Grosso state is one of the largest producers of monocultures for biodiesels in Brazil. Big European fuel companies are involved in production in Brazil, including Shell and BP.

"Many of the chemicals used in these agro-toxics are banned from use in the European Union, but still they export them", Wandscheer told EurActiv.

In Indonesia, the vast production of palm oil for fuel sources was driving land-grabs from indigenous populations who do not carry written documentation proving their ownership of the land, said Rinting Siten, a member of Indonesia’s Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago.

He added that the monocultures were threatening food security and that agro-toxics were making local water supplies undrinkable.

Without stronger EU regulation, the campaign group Oxfam believes demand for agro-based renewables will drive further expansion, whose production volumes are already projected at plus 4% per year.

“The EU must stop this absurd trend of using food for fuel, and to rapidly phase out all support to land-based biofuels," said Oxfam’s EU policy advisor Marc-Oliver Herman.

"European consumers are unknowingly financing hunger and environmental destruction in poor countries through the billions of euros they pay as a result of mandates, tax incentives and subsidies to biofuels.”

Positions: 

“We don’t believe that the science is mature or grounded enough to put any number [to ILUC emissions],” said Isabelle Maurizi, of the European Biodiesel Board.

“You cannot present a convincing case that biofuels are structurally causing higher food prices,” Rob Vierhoutsecretary-general of the European Renewable Ethanol Association, or ePure, told EurActiv. “We have had problems with [volatility] for decades and even in the time when biofuels were absolutely not around.”

“Sometimes it’s really absurd,” Oxfam’s EU policy advisor Marc-Oliver Herman told EurActiv. “We’ve had member states saying there’s no ILUC in our country so what are you talking about. Let’s just stop the stuff coming into Europe and it’s fine.”

Belinda Calaguas, head of campaigns at ActionAid International said: “A proposed law to set a cap on biofuels made from food crops is an encouraging first step. However, it may be largely tokenistic since the limit would be set above current food to fuel levels and not necessarily stop member states from going beyond it. We have seen land grabs and food prices skyrocketing in recent years, largely fuelled by biofuels targets and subsidies. ActionAid has serious doubts as to whether this new policy will do anything to change that. Furthermore, by not proposing to fully address greenhouse gas emissions associated with EU biofuels, the European Commission makes an unacceptable mockery of the EU’s commitment to tackling climate change. The EU Member States and Parliament should walk away from this proposal and wait until the European Commission comes back with something that will actually tackle climate, land grabs and hunger.”

Faustine Defossez, agriculture and bioenergy policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau said: “The recognition of ILUC factors as a measurement of the negative aspects of biofuels is an important step towards changing public policy to account for the emissions these fuels cause. Yet although the majority of MS recognize that ILUC is a problem, there is still much reticence to embrace the only available solution to resolve it.”

Robbie Blake, Friends of the Earth biofuels campaigner, said: “Several member states have their heads stuck in the sand on the science showing that biofuels are a disaster for food prices, hunger, and the climate. EU Environment Ministers need to get real on the rip-off costs they expect citizens to pay when they force consumers to buy expensive biofuels that don’t even help the climate and force our food prices up. Instead of propping up a biofuel industry with no future, we need the EU to end the use of food in our fuel tanks altogether.”

Timeline: 
  • April 2013: Informal Energy Council will discuss biofuels
  • July 2013: Scheduled European Parliament committee vote on the ILUC proposals
  • 1 July 2014: New biofuels installations must meet a 60% greenhouse gas saving threshold
  • 1 Dec. 2017: Biofuels installations in operation before 1 July 2014 must meet a greenhouse gas saving threshold of 35%
  • 31 Dec. 2017: The Commission will submit a review of policy and best scientific evidence on ILUC to the European Parliament and Council
  • 1 Jan. 2018: Biofuels installations in operation before 1 July 2014 must meet a greenhouse gas saviong threshold of 50%
  • 1 Jan. 2020: Deadline for 10% of EU's transport fuels to be sourced from renewable energies.
  • 2020: European Commission will not support further subsidies to biofuels unless they can demonstrate "substantial greenhouse gas savings"
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