Lithuania mounts rescue bid for first generation biofuels

A planned cap on first generation biofuels use for 2020 could be increased by 50%, if surprise Lithuanian proposals seen by EURACTIV are adopted at a meeting of EU diplomats today (29 November).

The EU’s original compromise plan had proposed a 5% cap on the share of Europe’s fuel market that could be met by feedstocks, which have been linked by EU scientists and environmentalists to rising food prices and deforestation, although the biofuels industry disputes this.

That bar was lifted to 6% in the European Parliament, before a committee vote appeared to kick it into the long grass. But the new Lithuanian compromise would resurrect the law, if only to stab it in the heart, green campaigners say.

Lithuania proposes raising the EU cap to 7% – feedstock-based biofuels currently have a 4.7% market share – while deeming planned targets for the most advanced biofuels, made from algae and waste residues, optional.

Instead, these would now be counted towards the EU’s separate objective of meeting 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, a move that the UK supported to ‘water down’ that target, environmentalists say. 

Chiara Zanasi, the project manager for the European Algae Biomass Association told EURACTIV that her organisation opposed the new proposal for this reason.

“Algae should be counted to the overall target as was initially proposed and confirmed by the Parliament,” she said. “With this proposal, private investments in algae biomass will not be guaranteed and this will damage the entire sector, not just biofuels but also the production of proteins, feeds, nutriceuticals and innovative bio-materials for the future.”

The draft law faces a final European Council vote on 12 December and, in negotiations, Germany is said to have argued that EU support for biofuels – currently running at around €6 billion a year – should be locked in until 2030.

While Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic all pushed to remove any limits on biofuels, France was a key supporter of a 7% target, backed by Spain and Portugal.   

Emissions reporting

Other passages in the draft Lithuanian legislation would weaken the reporting of emissions caused by indirect land use change (ILUC), the displaced agricultural activity that may be needed to grow fuel crops.

These will no longer need to be reported by EU states and, where they are logged, will come with a very wide uncertainty range stretching from 5%-95%.   

EU scientists contacted by EURACTIV said they were relieved that at least the ‘values’ or ILUC-related greenhouse gas estimates which source back to a key International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report would remain the legislation’s reference point.

The biofuels industry has bitterly contested the accuracy of the IFPRI report, and others that have followed.

Nathalie Lecocq, the director-general of Fediol, the EU vegetable oil and protein meal industry told EURACTIV: “IFPRI and other studies modelling ILUC lack scientific foundation and maturity to set ILUC values and should not be used for policy-making because of significant errors in the hypotheses and data.” 

Blinded by science

But “for us, these are still the best estimates we have available to base policy on,” a senior EU scientist who wished to remain anonymous told EURACTIV. “We consider them the most suitable for the purposes of EU policy.”

The problem has arisen because, in 2009, the EU mandated a goal of providing 10% of Europe’s fuel from renewable sources, mostly biofuels. Key scientific modeling exercises suggest that the mass production of biofuels may encourage the destruction of grasslands, forests and woods, to make up resulting agricultural shortfalls.

Speaking to EURACTIV last year, David Laborde, the IFPRI report’s author said that the EU’s biofuels policy had never been intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so much as to appease European farmers’ and industrial lobbies. 

“This inconsistency makes the debate perverted in some ways because you will see, here in Brussels, lobbies fighting to the death to show that what they produce is green when we have a lot of evidence to show the contrary,” he said.   

“We have lobbies that don’t even bother to contact or interact with us and just go to the commission or their member states’ representative and say ‘this study is totally shitty’ and they lie in the most extreme ways.”

Biofuels and green lobbies united

Interestingly, both environmental and biofuels lobby groups were united in criticism of the new Lithuanian proposal. Marc Oliver Herman, Oxfam’s EU biofuels expert, said that “what’s on the table is no cure to the ailing EU biofuels policy.”

“If EU Energy Ministers give their green light, they will be encouraging further hunger, land-grabs and environmental damage,” he added.

On the other side of the divide, “the European renewable ethanol industry is disappointed by the lack of ambition shown by the Council,” Emmanuel Desplechin, ePURE’s director for energy and environment told EURACTIV. “The compromise on the table is a missed opportunity for Europe to signal its support to the best performing biofuels, from conventional and advanced feedstocks.”

Some studies have found ethanol better at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than other first generation fuels such as biodiesels.

Background

Indirect land-use change' means that if you take a field of grain and switch the crop to biofuel, somebody somewhere will go hungry unless those missing tonnes of grain are grown elsewhere.

This is because the demand for the missing grain is typically met by the clearing of forests, grasslands and wetlands elsewhere to grow it - and the consequent 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 biofuel policies might have an indirect impact equal to 4.5 million hectares of land – an area the size of Denmark.

Some in the biofuel 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 biofuel production can also be fed to animals, they say, so reducing the pressure on land resources

Timeline

  • 12 December 2013: European Council to vote on new biofuels proposal

Further Reading

EURACTIV France La Lituanie propose un nouveau compromis sur les biocarburants