EU scientists’ biofuels warnings were ignored


EXCLUSIVE / The European Commission ignored an internal recommendation from its own scientists for mandatory carbon accounts and crop-specific measurements in a proposal to address the Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) from biofuels production.

The EU typically bases its policies around advice from the Joint Research Centre (JRC), but a warning from the scientists that the bloc’s biofuels policy was also making a “significant contribution” to the deforestation of peatlands in Malaysia and Indonesia was ignored.

The EU also neglected expert counsel that any reduced greenhouse gas emissions from fuel crops depended upon increased food scarcity.

Sources say that the chief of staff for Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn presented an opinion contrary to his directorate's science team at a cabinet college meeting discussing an ILUC proposal on 11 October 2012. The draft was then watered down, and has since been kicked into the legislative long grass.

EurActiv obtained the JRC's recommendation and other documents in an 'Access to Information' application. The recommendations note was sent to an undisclosed directorate on 10 October 2012, at the height of a furious lobby battle which pitted biofuels companies against environmentalists.

At issue was a proposal for mandatory carbon accounting of all fuel crops, assignations of emissions to crops, and a 5% cap on the contribution that first generation biofuels could make to an EU target for providing 10% of fuel from renewable sources by 2020.

Industry emails to the Commission at this time accused Brussels of “purposely causing the death of the whole EU biodiesel sector” and questioned whether the ILUC phenomenon even existed. 

But “it is important that the principle of full GHG accounting is introduced in the proposed amendment by including ILUC,” the JRC's recommendations say. They also call for “inclusion of the ILUC factors as written, resolving to update them quickly when new data becomes available, before the industry makes investment plans.”

Other documents released in the trawl show that the JRC expected this update to increase emissions estimates for food crops such as sugars, cereals and vegetable oils, because a key International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report informing the proposal, had undervalued them.

A separate JRC briefing warns that “a significant contribution to global ILUC emissions due to EU biofuels policies comes from the conversion of peatlands, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia. This causes oilseed crops to have a worse environmental performance than cereals/sugar crops used for ethanol.”

Cabinet ructions

Yet on the evening of the day that the JRC sent its recommendations (10 October), members of Quinn’s cabinet called for “a possible delay in implementation” of the EU’s proposal and expressed concerns about the gloomiest industry forecasts, according to minutes of a cabinet meeting previously obtained by EurActiv.

Earlier that day, members of Quinn’s cabinet had met with representatives of the Irish-based Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd (EERL). Its chief executive, Eric Sievers, presented the Commission with a paper calling for ILUC judgements that supported ethanol and penalised biodiesel.

Although ethanol performs better in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, a number of documents from the JRC and its Alternative Fuels department (ALFA) underline that the IFPRI report implicitly traded-off greenhouse gas emissions against decreased access to food, arguing that using crops for fuel increased food prices elsewhere. 

“Reduced food quality/variety is taken to reduce ILUC,” one JRC briefing says. “In other words, this means that ILUC reduction from people eating less and worse is taken as a benefit for biofuels.”

Another ALFA briefing calls for this effect to be removed from the ILUC model, even though it would mean “very substantially raising the ILUC factor for ethanol cereals”.

The cabinet had been buttressed with a 17-page internal steering brief for the meet with EERL which reflected the JRC’s positioning. But by the end of the day, the scientists' positions on ILUC appear to have been over-ruled in cabinet.


ILUC is the process which takes place when land for food crops is sequestered in one place, to replace land taken to grow crops for fuel elsewhere.

The biofuels industry disputes the scale, nature and agency of the problem, arguing that it is impossible to prove, and that crop displacements can be ameliorated by improved yields.   

In another briefing note, the ALFA analysts concede that “uncertainty is intrinsic in all models so will never be completely avoided.”

“But the science has improved significantly, and further investigation of modelling work and sensitivity analysis has allowed uncertainties to be largely reduced,” they continue. “Even with uncertainties, the best estimate of ILUC is not zero.”

Scientists and industry are largely agreed that second generation biofuels offer the best means of addressing ILUC. In the absence of incentives though, EU states' National Renewable Energy Action Plans predict that these will only make up 1% of total EU transport fuels by 2020.  

The Commission’s ILUC proposal would have quadrupled incentives for producing these more advanced biofuels made from algae, wastes and residue, which are thought crucial for the future of aviation fuel. 

But the proposal is currently on life support after energy ministers failed to reach agreement on it. Mention of the subject has been removed from the agenda of the Energy Council on 4 March and no further date for discussion has yet been set.

External links: 

EurActiv France La Lituanie propose un nouveau compromis sur les biocarburants



Mike Parr's picture

There is a very interesting side story to this saga. The recent UK floods have been made worse by farming practises. Example: a massive increase in the amount of maize grown by UK farms for the production of ethanol. Monbiot did an interesting article on the subject:

Key points: increase in maize from 1,400 hectares (1970) to 160,000 (now) - mostkly used for feed for livestock & ethanol. In 2006 Labour gov issued instructions (for maize) that ground cover crops should be sown under the maize and the land should be ploughed, then resown with winter cover plants within 10 days of harvesting. Current government issued a specific exemption for maize cultivation from all soil conservation measures i.e. it allowed farmers to stop planting cover (all that red tape & "green crap")

The above is another example of politicos not listening to scientists or engineers (who they pay to give unbiased advice) but instead to lobbyists.

evad666's picture

Interesting no mention of the need for fuel additives to clear fuel lines when vehicles use 5% bio ethanol

Gerry's picture

In the US scientists are silenced and sidelined by fundamentalist religious groups. In the EU the same is done by ideological green groups, and the results are just as bad. It was known right from the start that bio fuels were going to affect food production, it was only ever meant to be a stop gap measure until better fuel replacement alternatives were developed. How quickly things get out of hand, and how unwilling people are to correct the resultant mistakes.

Mike Parr's picture

Gerry, in the EU opposition to biofuels has usually come from groups.

Our problem in Europe is a double one: exports of lunatic religions from the USA (relatively a minor problem and free mental health care is available) and the export from the same country of market fundamentalism - which in many respects can also be considered a form of religion. Sadly the "cure" for market fundamentalism is more difficult.

Karel Yurian's picture

The comments by evad666 is false.

Blending of Oxygenates in gasoline has been practiced for several years and the use of ETBE and MTBE has been used systematically to replace lead. The problems which are alleged with using ethanol blends are only those that that the oil lobbyists continue to profligate. Most manufacturers of cars and the "ices" of current time can use any blend mixture of gasoline with ethanol even up to the theoretical boundary of 99.7% ethanol and 0.3% denaturants. A lubricant has always been added to engines, and strangely enough it is called oil.

When the original "ices" were invented there was no oil, and they quite happily managed to run these on ethanol at ratios over 85% using a lubricant derived from coal (often turpentine.)

If there is an issue for vehicles then the only one that has to be considered, as it is relevant to us all, is the costs. Here in SE Europe we cannot afford to run around paying for gasoline at €1-50 or more per litre, but we have to as the cartel decides this in Rotterdam.

The manufacture costs of bio-ethanol and its ultimate selling price when made from non-food materials. We can make and have produced for sale ethanol used as a fuel with a price which consumers can buy - complete with taxes paid - at €urocents 75 per litre now. With maturity in four years that can be reduced a little more.

The manufacture costs of bio-butanol (for direct blending with gasoline and Diels drived from oil) made from the same sources of materials can also be made for sale at €urocents 90 per litre.

Now I put it to you that these costs are sensible and it has been said by others, that should these proposed manufacturing installations produce such fuels now in the EU and be sold then the queues for them would last from here until christmas.

These are not hypothetical proposals but arereal. The companies building these are already working on them in Malta the Uk (Scotland Norther Ireland and England)as well as for Italy and SE Europe and beyond in to the MENA areas nearby.

These plants which will all come on line during the next three years will be followed out by a massive roll out of projects which in 15 years will produce over 100 billion litres of such biofuels for use in the EU and save the EU states huge import costs in oil. And this is just what we need in Bulgaria where we have wastes coming out of our Society in millions of tonnes per annum.