European biofuel mandates are unlikely to deliver a significant reduction and could even increase greenhouse gas emissions unless land use factors are considered, says a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).
The ICCT report suggests that Brussels is on the right track with its new biofuels rules, leaked last week, in which the EU executive backtracked on its policy goal of a 5.75% share for biofuels in the transport sector’s renewable energy targets.
The ICCT paper claims that, if not revised to address indirect land-use change (ILUC) the renewable energy directive could be expected to deliver a carbon saving of only 4% compared to fossil fuels, with a 30% chance actually of causing a net emissions increase.
The implementation of indirect land use change factors is likely to significantly increase carbon savings from biofuel policy, it says.
Such factors would also allow Europe to meet the directive's target for a minimum 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels compared to fossil fuels.
All of the carbon savings from the policy are likely to come from use of bioethanol, since its main source – sugarcane – uses less land than biodiesels made from palm and vegetable oils.
Biodiesel from non-waste vegetable oil, the study says, is “likely to have a worse carbon footprint that fossil diesel".
No basis for biodiesel
“Given that biodiesel production is also expected to be worse for a range of other environmental indicators (e.g. acidification, eutrophication, biodiversity) … than fossil diesel, there is no environmental basis for the EU to continue to support the supply of biodiesel … from non-waste vegetable oil.”
Under the leaked EU proposal, the EU executive will end all subsidies for crop-based biofuels after the current legislation expires in 2020, a major blow to a sector worth an estimated €17 billion a year in Europe alone.
Angela Corbalan, EU media and communications officer for Oxfam, said her organisation viewed the leaked Commission proposal as a “step in the right direction.”
“If adopted”, she said in emailed comments, “it will send a strong signal that the Commission eventually wants to stop promoting the use of food for fuel and climate change damaging biofuels.”
A ‘crystal ball’ exercise
Rob Vierhout, secretary-general of ePure, a trade group representing the bioethanol industry, said he doubted the significance of ILUC factors in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
“I don’t trust this science”, he said, adding that at this particular point in time no clear methodology exists: “It’s a crystal ball exercise. No one can give hard numbers on iLUC.”
Vierhout also condemned the Commission policy u-turn as "inconsistent policymaking".
“We’ve invested billions of euros”, he said. “Now the Commission says they’re going to change the game.” ePure would put up a strong fight against the proposed law, he vowed.
The criticism echoes many others in a biofuel industry which argues that current modelling, such as that used in the ICCT study, is not robust enough for use in policymaking.
Food prices vs CO2 emissions
Nusa Urbancic, clean fuels campaigner for the Transport & Environment NGO, said that despite the Commission proposing to cut the use of crop-based biofuels, the bioethanol industry could benefit from the new law.
European demand for biodiesel exceeds bioethanol, as more European cars run on diesel but, while the proposed law would hit all crop-based fuels – including ethanol made from sugar cane – the market for fuels better in iLUC factors could increase.
“It will still be good for them because there will be an incentive to move towards biofuels with lower factors”, Urbancic said.
Land used to power European cars with biofuels for one year could produce enough wheat and maize to feed 127 million people, said a study released by Oxfam ahead of the EU Energy Ministers’ meeting today (17 September).
"With the world’s poorest at greater risk of hunger as a result of spiralling food prices, the international agency is calling on the EU to rethink its dangerous love affair with biofuels", read a statement accompanying the study.
"Biofuels are wreaking havoc on tight food markets and our forests, increasing hunger and accelerating climate change just so Europe can fuel its cars," said Robbie Blake, the biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth.
"The EU needs to comprehensively close the carbon accounting loophole [from ILUC], otherwise biofuels will continue to expand agriculture for fuel at the expense of forests and natural habitats, and increase carbon emissions." He continued: "After months of delay, the Commission has come up with a messy compromise that acknowledges that ILUC is extremely serious, but then fails to address it in all pieces of legislation. This proposal would see an increase in Europe's biofuels made from food, when what we need at this time of food crisis is to stop burning them altogether."
“Europe has helped spark a global rush for biofuels that is forcing poor families from their homes, while big business piles up the profits. Biofuels were meant to make transport greener, but European governments are pouring consumers' money down the drain, whilst depriving millions of people of food, land and water,” said Natalia Alonso, Head of Oxfam’s EU Office.
In response to the Oxfam report, EU commissioners Günther Oettinger (Energy) and Connie Hedegaard (Climate Action) said in a joint statement:
Indirect land use change (ILUC) refers to the unintentional changes in land-use as a result of the expansion of croplands for ethanol or biodiesel production.
The demand for other crops, which are moved to make way for biofuel production, is then met by the clearing of new land, such as forests, grasslands and wetlands, resulting in a depletion of the planet's carbon absorption stocks. This process is exacerbated when the forests are burned, and vast quantities of climate-warming emissions are pumped into the atmosphere.
The European Commission has run 15 studies on different biofuel crops, which on average conclude that over the next decade Europe's biofuels policies might have an indirect impact equal to 4.5 million hectares of land – an area the size of Denmark.
Some in the biofuels industry argue that the Commission's science is flawed and that the issue could be tackled by a major overhaul of agricultural strategy to improve productivity or by pressing abandoned farmland back into action. Waste products from biofuels production can also be fed to animals, they say, so reducing the pressure on land resources.
- Oct. - Nov. 2012: Commission releases draft proposal for Renewable Energy Directive