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.
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.”
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.”