MEPs deal a blow to crop-based biofuels

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EU efforts to limit the use of crop-based biofuels, increasingly seen as doing the planet more harm than good, won parliamentary backing on Thursday (11 July) in what a top biodiesel company called "a very bad blow".

The vote in the European Parliament's environment committee will be followed by a plenary vote, expected in September. It will also require endorsement by EU member states, which are deeply divided on the issue.

Environmental campaigners said Thursday's vote marked progress towards more sustainable biofuels.

But biofuel producers and their suppliers are furious at the policy U-turn. They said the proposed limit of 5.5% of total transport fuel use was far too low and would lead to plant closures and job losses.

Jean-Philippe Puig, chief executive of Sofiproteol, which owns the EU's largest biodiesel producer Diester Industrie, said the vote "was a very bad blow".

Earlier this month Sofiproteol said it would close two units of Diester Industrie because of overcapacity.

In 2008, an EU target was introduced to get 10% of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020, most of which would come from so-called first generation biofuels made from sugar, cereals and oilseeds.

Since then, a series of studies has underlined the potential environmental damage caused by some biofuels, particularly biodiesel, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the estimated €13 billion EU biofuel sector.

Most recently, a study by the Joint Research Center (JRC) - the European Commission's in-house research body - confirmed earlier EU studies that biodiesel made from crops such as rapeseed does more harm to the climate than conventional diesel.

Other biofuels are less problematic, the research finds.

Fuels made from cereals and sugar crops have much lower carbon emissions than those from vegetable oils such as rapeseed oil, palm oil from Malaysia or soyoil from the Americas.

The reason some first-generation biofuels are considered a problem is that they increase demand for crops, displacing food production into new areas, forcing forest clearance and the draining of peat land. They can also add to food price inflation.

The displacement of land is known as ILUC (indirect land-use change) and can result in enough carbon emissions to cancel out any theoretical savings from biofuels.

The Commission proposal includes ILUC factors to estimate the indirect emissions of biofuels made from cereals, sugars and oilseeds, but they carry no legal weight.

Thursday's committee proposal makes them binding from 2020 for industry and in the case of governments with immediate effect.

"This vote will pave the way for truly sustainable transport fuels, which actually reduce emissions, as of 2020," said Nuša Urbančič, a manager at campaign group T&E.

Committee members also voted for extra incentives to promote advanced or second-generation biofuels. Made from waste or agricultural residues rather than food crops, these are seen as the most sustainable type of biofuel, but are still at an early stage of commercialisation.

Positions: 

Kåre Riis Nielsen, the European Affairs Director for the advanced biofuels company, Novozymes, described the report adopted by environment committee as “complex and ineffective”. he said: “The use of artificial multiple counting has already proved largely ineffective to spur advanced biofuels technologies and only enables Member States to achieve the targets on paper. Moreover, limiting the share of conventional biofuels to 5.5% prevents further growth of the industry and ignores the strong contribution conventional ethanol makes to decarbonise the transport sector even when ILUC is accounted for. Finally, the introduction of an opt-out clause is counterproductive as it allows Member States not to do anything on the transport side if they achieve the overall 20% renewables target.”   

He added that it was likely to cause “great confusion for the vote in plenary. It is also a weak basis for negotiation with Member States that will come to the table with a coherent position. We therefore urge the plenary in September to prefer the ITRE report as a solid compromised text to promote best performing biofuels while addressing ILUC concerns in a practical manner.”

The first generation biofuels sector was also concerned by the vote. “We fear with that with this curb, Europe risks throwing the baby out with the bath water”, said Rob Vierhout, the secretary-general of ePure, which represents Europe ethanol producers. “With the right framework renewable ethanol made in Europe makes an important contribution to the transition to low carbon transport and responsible economic growth. This home-grown sustainable and renewable source of energy can benefit Europeans and the European economy whilst reducing transport emissions by up to 90% compared to fossil fuels.”

However, Transport & Environment’s clean fuels manager Nuša Urbančič disagreed. “It is encouraging to see that MEPs in charge of protecting our environment finally addressed the elephant in the room by fully accounting for indirect emissions in the EU biofuels policy,” she said. “This vote will pave the way for truly sustainable transport fuels, which actually reduce emissions, as of 2020. The full European Parliament now needs to uphold in September the science-based decision made by the Environment Committee. Otherwise, public support worth at least €10 billion a year will continue to be wasted on harmful biofuels that in many cases pollute twice as much as conventional fuels.” 

ActionAid’s Laura Sullivan accented what she saw as the shortcomings of the vote for the world’s poor. “Today’s vote has seen MEPs still putting fuel and industry interests before food and hunger goals,” she said. “Although there were some good results including strengthened efforts to account for the full emissions impact of biofuels, the overall outcome is poor. The EPP pushed to water the [proposed 5% cap on first generation biofuels] down to 5.5%. Whilst this may seem minor, it is a dangerous move which prioritises fuel before food and industry before people and tackling hunger. These moves by the conservatives need to be exposed and stopped before the plenary vote in September. The Parliament’s vote today shows that it is still ignoring the evidence, including the 2011 call by ten international organisations including the World Bank and FAO to end mandates and subsidies for biofuels on the basis of their proven impact on food price volatility. This is not acceptable.”

Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe said: “The result of the vote shows MEPs have understood that biofuels cause hunger, deforestation and carbon emissions. But they have not voted for strong enough action to remove these threats. This vote would put a necessary pause on the expansion of biofuels, but we need to end biofuels competing with food production by phasing out this misguided use of food for fuel altogether.”

FEDIOL, an association representing the European vegetable oils and proteinmeal industry issued a robust condemnation of the parliamentary vote, which they said had “compromised European Biofuels Industry’s future on the basis of unreliable evidence.

The European Parliament Environment Committee’s vote on iLUC is a missed opportunity to address land-use change concerns and safeguard the sustainable operations of European Industry. The Environment Committee has taken a radical step in limiting and phasing out conventional biofuels, threatening the operations of FEDIOL members.”

The statement continued: “The ILUC science remains unreliable and it is not expected that scientists will reach an agreement on the validity of a particular model in the short term. Given this background, reporting will be based on defective and highly uncertain iLUC factors. This will discredit a sustainability compliant industry, erode confidence in the production of sustainable raw materials and put operational investments at risk.

FEDIOL acknowledges that the ENVI Committee Rapporteur, Corinne Lepage, has made some improvements with the compromise amendments, but fundamental problems remain which will have serious impact on the industry. Limiting the amount of first generation biofuels to 5.5% will idle the investments made by our industry and will be a blow to the entire EU biofuels chain.”

The Green MEP Bas Eickhout, said that the EU should not be exacerbating pressure on the global food supply and food prices by promoting the use of agricultural land for fuel. “Feeding crops into cars has fuelled rising food prices and rainforest destruction,” he said. “While we think that the vote to put a 5.5% cap on the use of land-based biofuels like food crops in the overall fuel mix is a step in the right direction, we should in fact be shunning the use of food crops for fuel altogether. Even though conservative MEPs continue to bury their heads in the sand, a majority of the environment committee have voted to guarantee that biofuels placed on the EU market are better for the environment than conventional oil-based fuel. It is highly questionable why, at a time of severe economic crisis, the EU should continue subsidising biofuels to the tune of ten billion Euros, without putting these climate safeguards in place.”

Imke Lübbeke, a senior officer at WWF Europe echoed this sentiment. “The Environment Committee has taken an important step towards ensuring more sustainable biofuels in Europe,” she said. “By deciding to apply the full accounting of climate impacts of biofuel emissions from indirect land-use change to the two relevant laws, MEPs gave the market the right incentives to provide cleaner biofuels. As the amendments adopted today will be discussed with the Industry and Energy Committee before the crucial plenary vote in early autumn, MEPs of the ENVI Committee must stand firm and defend their commitment to better biofuels in Europe.”

Trees Robijns, the agriculture and bioenergy officer at BirdLife Europe hailed the vote as “a move forwards in correcting the EU’s flawed bioenergy policy. Some steps have been taken to put in place correct carbon accounting and impose limitations on the use of the worst biofuels. Although today’s vote did set the EU in the right direction of travel, there is still a lot of work to be done before these necessary reforms are complete. BirdLife Europe calls upon the leadership in both the Environment and Industry Committees to work constructively towards reforming this policy so that it delivers the carbon reductions Europe needs while not harming people or the environment.”

“The current debate is asking the wrong questions,” said the European Biodiesel Board’s secretary-general Raffaello Garofalo. “Limiting biofuels production will neither solve hunger, nor will it prevent deforestation. ILUC modelling remains uncertain and the industry cannot be penalised on groundless assumptions. Europe has the opportunity to show its commitment to keep its innovative industry at pace. Reliance on ungrounded science would only have negative consequences for European jobs and no positive results in Climate Change policy.”

Client Earth’s legal advisor Giuseppe Nastasi said that the proposed 5.5% cap was still too high. “This is not good enough as even a 5% cap will not negate indirect land use change,” he explained. “Moreover, MEPs voted to subsidise some advanced biofuels made from environmentally dangerous materials such as industrial and municipal waste (with the exception of a few waste streams), plus forestry and agricultural residues whose use endangers biodiversity and soil fertility. This will have to be corrected by Parliament on 10th September.”

The former environment committee chairman and socialists and democrats MEP, Jo Leinen said that the EU could no longer be responsible for rainforest deforestation with the attendant increasing greenhouse gas emissions. “With today's report the environment committee responds to international criticism,” he said. “Accordingly, the EU climate target in the transport sector incentivises third countries to grow more food crops for biofuels instead of selling them as food. This leads to land grabbing, slash-and-burn land clearance which increases greenhouse gas emissions as well as higher food. The limitation of conventional biofuels to 5.5% solves all these conflicts: We end the competition of land for food and fuel, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions and we get sustainble biofuels.”

Marc Olivier Herman, Oxfam’s EU biofuels expert, said: “Today’s vote falls short of what is needed to put the brakes on growing European demand for biofuels, allowing an expensive and failed policy to go on fuelling hunger and land grabs in poor countries. In a world where almost 900 million people go hungry to bed every night, the support for biofuels should be phased out. At least rapporteur Lepage managed to prevent a worst-case scenario by standing firm in the face of attempts by the biofuel industry and European farmers’ unions to further weaken Parliament’s position. Now it is up to all MEPs to resist this pressure ahead of the crucial vote in September and vote for no more food for fuel.”

The GUE/NGL MEP Sabine Wils said that in spite of strong opposition from industry lobby groups, MEPs have backed a positive and sustainable proposal on ILUC. “"It is very important that both social and decent employment rights are respected in third countries and that the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities to the ownership or use of the land from which raw materials are used to produce biofuels and bioliquids are protected,” she said. “The Commission has a duty to protect these rights by ensuring they are secured and recognised in transparent agreements. This is a clear and strong statement respecting developing countries' rights that we welcome with satisfaction.”

Greenpeace’s EU biofuels director Sebastien Risso agreed. He said: “MEPs have made great strides to safeguard against the environmental impacts of biofuels, but they have missed an opportunity to reduce the consumption of biofuels that compete with food. When MEPs come together for a final vote in the autumn, they should take a look at the evidence and turn away from harmful biofuels.”

From the other side of the policy divide, the Renewable Energy Association’s head of renewable transport Clare Wenner said that the European Parliament vote would damage a significant part of the current investment in the UK biofuels industry and raise the costs of meeting renewable energy and climate change objectives.  “Today’s vote is very disappointing for so much of the UK biofuels industry,” she said. “It will ensure that fossil fuels continue to dominate transport for the foreseeable future and it will reduce the stimulus for investments in improving agricultural yields and practices. These final proposals are a conceptually flawed attempt to force European biofuel developers to pay for the assumed emissions of other industries in other regions of the world. They will put committed investments in agricultural biofuels and future investments in advanced biofuels at extreme risk across Europe – as well as all the jobs that go with them. So-called green campaigners have well and truly shot themselves in the foot with this pyrrhic victory.”

However, the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) took a more measured line. “UNICA welcomes European Union policymakers’ diligence and efforts in pushing for the consumption of biofuels that have the highest environmental credentials and technical performance,” said UNICA CEO, Elizabeth Farina. “UNICA is encouraged that the Environment Committee voted Thursday to approve measures that would help incentivize the production of more advanced biofuels.” However, Géraldine Kutas, the group’s international head added that “UNICA is disappointed that the Environment Committee voted today to put an arbitrary cap on the use of all food-based biofuels. Such a cap ignores important differences between conventional biofuels’ environmental performance and is vulnerable to being de facto discriminatory and breaching World Trade Organization rules. UNICA, like all other non-European producers, encourages the EU to reject the proposed legislation that would risk violating Member States’ obligations to respect all WTO principles. The EU could choose alternative, less trade-restrictive measures.”

Timeline: 
  • 10 Sept. 2013: Biofuels proposal goes to a plenary vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg
  • 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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