Division reigns as Parliament gears up for critical biofuels vote

The environmental impact of palm oil used in transport fuel is worse than fossil diesel. [KYTan/Shutterstock]

The European Parliament is due to adopt the recast of the Renewable Energy Directive at its plenary session in Strasbourg on Wednesday (17 January). France is trying to undermine the agreement to eliminate palm oil from EU biofuels – the only compromise MEPs managed to reach. EURACTIV France reports.

Ahead of the crucial vote, there is palpable suspense over the future of biofuels in Europe. As late as Tuesday, lawmakers were still deeply divided over how to regulate the biofuels market for the years to come, while a consensus appeared to be emerging around a target of 35% renewables in the EU’s energy mix by 2030.

The debate has been broad: some, including a majority in the Parliament’s influential environment committee, wanted to eliminate biofuels altogether by 2030. Others wanted to develop them further.

Socialists, EPP and ALDE propose to cap biofuels shares at 2017 level, end palm oil

Lawmakers from the European Parliament’s three major political families reached on 10 January a compromise to cap the level of crop-based biofuels at the level that each member state reached in 2017 and “kill” palm oil as a transport fuel from 2021, EURACTIV.com has learnt.

In the end, the text is likely not to deviate too far from the status quo. Rather than cutting them out altogether by 2030, MEPs are proposing to cap the share of biofuels in the EU’s transport fuel at its current level of 4.2%, with different limits for each country depending on their current energy mix.

“The objective is to prevent new investment. If we freeze the means of production, we will send a very clear signal to the agricultural industries,” said rapporteur Claude Turmes, a Luxembourgish Green MEP.

France to the rescue of palm oil

The only major step forward – the agreement to completely eliminate palm oil from European biofuels by 2021 – appears to have the backing of most political groups.

Commission tells Malaysia proposed biofuel policy respects WTO rules

The European Commission’s proposal for the recast of the Renewable Energy Directive is in compliance with the EU’s commitments under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, Commission sources told EURACTIV.com, replying to threats from Malaysia to refer the case to the WTO.

But the French government this week wrote to EU lawmakers to express its opposition to the compromise. Arguing that the measure could be attacked at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Paris defended the contribution of palm oil to the EU’s objectives.

Experts say it is the worst of all biofuels for the environment due to the land use change it drives in producer countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, where carbon and biodiversity-rich rainforests are being cut down to make way for plantations.

“It’s a meaningless argument. The ban on palm oil does not target one country in particular so it cannot be taken to the WTO,” said French Green MEP Yannick Jadot.

France’s last-minute move does not appear to be driven by ecological concern: in the south of France, one refinery belonging to oil giant Total is particularly profitable thanks to palm oil.

The financial interests of France’s oil producers appear to take precedence over the country’s farmers, who would be glad to see an end to palm oil imports that compete with their own oilseed crops.

'Greenwashed oil' set to win from renewable transport targets, biofuel industry claims

Biofuel producers in the Visegrad countries plus Lithuania and Bulgaria have warned that a phase-out of biofuels will lead to a phase-in of ‘greenwashed’ fossil fuels under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), as it currently stands in the Council’s proposal.

The report on the transport fuel mix by Socialist MEP José Blanco López proposes a 15% cap on biofuels in transport. For the EU association of farmers and agri-cooperatives Copa-Cogeca, this is a bare minimum. But Green MEP Karima Delli said the fuels must not become an adjustment variable “because we have fallen behind on renewable energies in transport, particularly in batteries”.

EU’s car emission goals for 2030 stir up ‘tech neutrality’ debate

The European Commission’s latest proposal on car’s CO2 emissions for 2030 has started a fresh debate about whether Brussels has actually dropped its long-standing “technological neutrality” stance in favour of electric cars.

EPP aims to create back door with ‘highly sustainable biofuels’

In a last-minute effort in mid-January, members of the centre-right European People’s Party group (EPP) proposed a series of new amendments to the text, creating a new category of ‘highly sustainable biofuels’, which would be excluded from the previously mentioned caps (amendments 349-352).

The definition of these biofuels is very broad, covering biofuel crops that also produce high protein animal feed, such as rapeseed, as well as high-yield ethanol crops. “This is a way to sabotage the caps. We will end up producing more than the legal limit if this passes,” said Édouard Martin, the lead MEP on the issue for the French socialists.

At the very least, such deep divisions in the Parliament hint at tough trilogue negotiations to come, where lawmakers may struggle to assert their position against those of the Council and the Commission.

Commission's biofuels proposal may kill future investment, industry warns

The biofuels industry has hit out at the European Commission’s proposal to reduce the cap on crop-based biofuels in the EU’s transport fuel mix, saying it would undermine the EU executive’s renewable energy policy and slash investment in advanced biofuels.


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