Green MEP: Sustainability criteria will distinguish ‘good’ and ‘bad’ biofuels

Bas Eickhout [European Parliament]

This article is part of our special report Phasing-out biofuels: What’s really at stake?.

Sustainability criteria are needed to make a clear distinction between “bad” biofuels like palm oil and “good” ones like some ethanol, MEP Bas Eickhout told EURACTIV in an interview.

Bas Eickhout is a Dutch MEP of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance in the European Parliament. He is the rapporteur for the Parliament’s ENVI committee’s draft report on the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II).

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos.

What is your overall approach towards the European Commission’s Renewable Energy Directive II proposal?

We are shedding the policies for 2030. We have to look in the long term what transport will look like. I still think the Commission’s current proposal feels like they are fighting last decade’s fight, continuing this idea of putting a cap on biofuels and introducing some targets for advanced biofuels, whereas the developments in real life are going much faster.

The developments in the electrification of transport are going so fast that the current proposal is not taking into consideration too much of those developments. So what I’m trying to say is yes, biofuels will play a role – biofuels in general – but I think they will play much more of a role in long-range transport – shipping, aviation. I’m not even sure anymore how big the role of biofuels will be in heavy-duty vehicles – trucks because even there, electrification is gaining grounds. For passenger cars, I really have my doubts whether biofuel will have any role.

If you put a policy in place until 2030, you have to make sure that you get the right framework. I’m trying to put sustainability criteria to say what are good biofuels and what are not. And then you can overcome this policy debate about what are good biofuels, what are bad biofuels – I think the world is much more complex than that.

And in your target setting, you have to really make sure that electrification can compete in an honest way. And I think that in the Commission’s proposal, that was not the case. They were hardly stimulating the electrification and that should be enhanced, given the vision you have on what energy should look like in 2030.

Biofuel debate a political hot potato as EU renewable energy law nears home straight

Talks over how to decarbonise the EU’s transport fleet are heating up. As policymakers prepare the bloc’s renewable energy targets for 2030, part of the debate has crystallised around the role of biofuels. And farmers are getting increasingly vocal.

You recently said that there must be a differentiation among first-generation biofuels. Do you insist on that?

Yes, I insist. The different political groups are divided in the Parliament. We had more than 1,000 amendments and they go in all different directions, there are real differences of opinion. My proposal is to overcome those differences and to say to people at the most conservative end of the parliament – why are we capping food-based crops? Because they can be good if you combine them with products for feed etc.

I say ok, there are good examples of first-generation biofuels, but there are also bad examples of first-generation biofuels.

The Parliament said in a big majority we wanted to get rid of palm oil in the biofuels.

You can’t say in a piece of legislation that the one or the other should be excluded. But of course you can create criteria for exclusion, and there come the indirect land use change criteria.

What we do know in those cases is that there is a lot of competition for land, having a negative impact on the carbon balance. If you put in those criteria, palm oil would fall off.

Whereas we know there are some ethanol examples that could comply with these sustainability criteria.

So, what I’m trying to do to overcome this debate in the Parliament is to say – ok, let’s put good criteria in place and then we can be more relaxed than the cap discussion.

The Commission is saying – we use the cap to lower the negative effects of indirect land use change. I think that is a very blunt tool to do that, I prefer to look at the criteria in ILUC. If we do no biofuels at all, there will be no ILUC, but maybe that’s too blunt.

Visegrad and Balkans hit out at Commission over biofuels phase-out proposal

The Visegrad and three Balkan countries signed a joint declaration urging the European Commission to reconsider its proposal to gradually phase-out the first generation biofuels after 2020 and think about the consequences.

China and India are ambitious adopters of electric cars. The EU looks like it doesn’t want to follow this trend. Is there a risk of Europe lagging behind?

I think the risk is definitely there. You can conclude that the European car industry and first of all the German car industry, they were betting on the wrong horse. They thought that to do climate policies, we put everything on diesel. They even put so much effort on diesel that they even cheated for it. It went into a dead-end street. And of course, the car industry now is saying “don’t put too much pressure on us because we have to change our vision on the future of transport” – but the rest of the world is not waiting. And indeed like you said, China and India are putting mandates for electrification on the table. If we as policymakers are not making progress, we will only import cars and we will lose our export potential that is there. So I think really, the European car industry has been asleep too long, certainly the German industry. They are waking up.

What is the impact of the German election on the case considering that the Greens will not be part of the coalition?

In any new coalition, how to proceed with the future of the car industry will be one of the topics in German negotiations. I think everyone looks at the long-term and sees that the German car industry needs to accelerate its development and I think that Brussels should stipulate that, in order to really make sure that the European car industry is there in the long term as well.

Climate and energy policy could decide next German government

Climate and energy policy could emerge as a make-or-break topic in Germany’s coalition negotiations, after Sunday’s election result put Angela Merkel’s Conservatives on a path to forming a government with the Liberal and Green parties.

There are reservations regarding the Commission’s impact assessment process. It was criticised for being flawed – what’s your comment on that?

It is clear that it was a political compromise that was proposed- that’s how you read the proposal. And let’s be honest. Of course, they make political proposals, they are political in the end. I think it’s now up to the legislators to evaluate whether they struck the right political compromise. And I think they didn’t. I think they were on one end too blunt with their tools, and on the other hand, they were a bit blind for the developments in the electrification of the car industry. I will try to correct both: make a criteria-based distinction among biofuels, allowing that a competition between electric cars and cars on biofuels- let the market decide.

Hydrogen could also be there-there are more options, let’s stimulate and let the market decide what should be there. But it’s important to remember that the Commission will come up with some specific car legislation in November. There is the question whether a mandate for electric cars will be on the table. I think there is some leverage for the Commission to correct itself through this legislation.

Are you convinced about the sustainability of this approach?

We have to make sure we don’t make the same mistake in a way – a lot of the markets think, OK let’s be part of the advanced biofuels because that’s what is going to be stimulated. For me, good criteria are crucial. If you don’t have good criteria in place, you will end up having a lot of things that will be called advanced but they are not sustainable at all. And the entire sector will suffer from it and have a bad image.

What the Commission is promoting, one of the examples is molasses, the chemistry, and the food industry uses that. If you start using that as a fuel, we are going to have to use other alternatives – and one of them is palm oil.

MEPs criticise Commission’s ‘flawed’ policy on post-2020 biofuels

The European Commission’s “scientifically unfounded” U-turn on biofuels will have significant implications for the agriculture sector and risks increasing the imports of GM animal feed from third countries, lawmakers warn.

Are we coming back to the fuel versus food debate?

Maybe indirectly, you do an advanced biofuel that you count as advanced and sustainable, but then the chemical industry has to go to other food-based fuels again in order to do that type of processing. You have to know what you promote.

The key is good sustainability criteria, then you decide which ones to promote and stimulate.

A sticky matter: Sugar molasses dent EU's ambitions on advanced biofuels

Sugar molasses, which the European Commission sees as “advanced” biofuel, present many of the same problems as conventional biofuels – including a potential increase in food prices and land competition for food production. But their definition as biofuels keeps the sugar industry happy, EURACTIV.com has learned.