A proposal to limit Europe’s use of food-based fuel crops has been stalled by a vote on the European Parliament’s environment committee yesterday (17 October), and may not now be decided before 2015.

Parliament’s rapporteur on the legislation, French liberal MEP Corinne Lepage, had been due to begin fast-tracked negotiations with EU states over the bill, which will now go to a second reading.

The draft legislation would have limited to 6% the share of Europe’s transport fuel that such crops could make up by 2020.

But a procedural vote requiring a two-thirds qualified majority fell by two votes – on a 34 votes to 18 count – reputedly because it was “taking place late on a Thursday afternoon,” as one observer put it.

“The EPP [European People's Party] and the far right have defended the first generation biofuels lobby well,” Lepage tweeted immediately after the vote. “Seven billion euros per year subsidy!”

Europe’s Council of Ministers must now agree a joint position to be submitted to the Parliament for a new ballot, but this is not thought likely to happen before May 2014 when new elections are due.

Nusa Urbancic, the clean fuels manager of Transport and Environment, a green think tank, described the committee vote as “a victory for the current biofuels industry over the future one.”

“There is no certainty for the advanced biofuels sector and a lot of them will probably move out of Europe now as they have threatened to before,” she told EurActiv. “But the bad ones – the biodiesel sector – can continue to produce for a bit longer.”

Rafaello Garofalo, the secretary-general of the European Biodiesel Board, an industry group, said that the first generation biofuels industry was also investing in advanced biofuels but that the current proposals “risk penalising part of the industry while giving rewards to another”.

“The vote today confirms that there are huge doubts on the ILUC [Indirect Land use Change] file and confirms that the European parliament itself has a contradictory approach and a lot of doubts and uncertainties,” he said.  

He welcomed the opportunity for more time, adding that the EU’s decision could now be taken in a “quieter environment” by the next European Commission and Parliament after the EU elections in May 2014.

Original EU target

In 2009, the EU first set a target for sourcing 10% of Europe’s transport fuel to renewable energy by 2020, almost all of it to come from first-generation crop-based fuels, such as biodiesel.

As these food crops already have a 5% share of the EU’s transport market, the 6% bar would have effectively called time on the industry.

The EU had hoped that the gap in their 2020 target would be made up by advanced biofuels made from algae, waste and organic residues, as these have no effect on land use patterns, which EU scientists say may cause food price hikes, or higher emissions.

The EU’s Joint Research Center last month reported that if Europe’s subsidies were removed from first generation biofuels, the price of food stuffs such as vegetable oil would be up to 50% lower in Europe by 2020, and 15% lower elsewhere in the world.