A draft directive on renewable energies, due to be finalised on 23 January, fails to set sufficiently rigourous sustainability criteria regarding the production of biofuels and could lead to the destruction of important ecosystems and lower social standards, a group of 17 NGOs told EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs in a letter delivered on 11 January.
EU leaders committed themselves last March to the binding goal of raising the share of biofuels in transport from current levels of around 2% to 10% by 2020, conditional upon their sustainable production.
Concerns have already been raised that working with a purely numerical target could encourage fuel makers to focus solely on cutting CO2 at the lowest possible cost, without any consideration for other potentially negative environmental side-effects – notably those linked to the mass production of biofuels made from agricultural crops, including deforestation, food price hikes and water shortages.
But NGOs say the Commission's draft as it stands does not ensure that the production of biofuels will be sustainable. Although it prevents biofuels planted in permanent grasslands, forests and wetlands from counting towards the 10% target, they warn that it leaves important ecosystems completely unprotected, such as savannahs and water and soil resources.
A further concern is that the draft document would still allow biofuels produced in protected areas such as forests to be considered "sustainable" provided that the land conversion was carried out before January 2008. Friends of the Earth campaigner Adrian Bebb told EurActiv: "Basically, this means that anyone chopping down a rainforest two weeks ago can now sell the biofuels he produces on that land as environmentally sustainable." He called on the Commission to return to an earlier version of the draft where the threshold date was set in 2003.
NGOs also say the EU executive has "totally ignored" a number of major side-effects that could derive from the large-scale production of biofuels, such as increasing food and feed prices, water scarcity, forced evictions to set up new plantations and poor working conditions in developing countries, as well as the displacement of other agricultural activities into socially or environmentally sensitive areas (e.g. rainforests or savannahs).
They further call on the Commissioner to ensure that "only biofuels delivering substantial reductions are accepted as counting towards the target". The current draft proposal does not specify the minimum level of emission savings, but NGOs believe it should not be lower than 50%. This would rule out a whole series of biofuels, including sugar cane or corn ethanol and certain types of palm oil and rapeseed biodiesel.
Fuel producers say the exclusion of such biofuels from the 10% target would make it impossible to achieve, but the European Parliament looks set to back a similar position to the NGOs in a vote, on 14 January, on a report by Dutch Socialist MEP Dorette Corbey regarding quality specifications for fuels (see our Links Dossier on the Fuel Quality Directive).
The report, which was backed by Parliament's environment committee on 27 November, introduces a requirement for biofuels to deliver life-cycle CO2 savings of at least 50% compared to fossil fuels in order for them to count towards the 10% target. It also sets out a number biodiversity and social criteria, such as the obligation for biofuel producers to protect water and soil resources in order to ascertain that no significant negative indirect land-use change impacts occur. It also obliges them to obtain the consent of local communities and respect international labour standards.