This article is part of our special report Phasing-out biofuels: What’s really at stake?.
If the EU intends to meet its climate obligations under the Paris Agreement, then it should favour both “sustainable” biofuels and electric cars in post-2020 transport, MEP Seán Kelly told EURACTIV in an interview.
Kelly, an Irish MEP from the European People’s Party (EPP), also warned that the catastrophic environmental impact of palm oil had ruined the reputation of all biofuels and called on the European Commission to stop tarring all first-generation biofuels with the same brush.
As part of the Renewable Energy Directive review (RED II), the Commission proposed a gradual phase-out of food-based biofuels, which should be replaced by “more advanced biofuels” that do not compete with food crops.
For 2030, the EU executive proposed reducing the contribution of conventional biofuels in transport from a maximum of 7% in 2021 to 3.8% in 2030. It also set an obligation to raise the share of other “low emissions fuels” such as renewable electricity and advanced biofuels in transport to 6.8%.
Kelly, who is the shadow rapporteur for the centre-right EPP group on the RED II proposal in the European Parliament, said he was in favour of a renewable energy transport target for the post-2020 period.
“There is a need to reduce harmful emissions across all sectors, and in the EU we have a lot of work to do in this regard,” he noted, adding that in order to meet the obligations under the Paris Agreement, the EU needs to “incentivise solutions that are both clean and sustainable – such as sustainable biofuels and e-mobility”.
Palm oil and biofuel infamy
The MEP made it clear that first generation biofuels should be differentiated considering that their environmental impacts are very different and pointed out that incentives for biofuels like palm oil should be stopped.
“The reputation of biofuels has been tarnished as a result of the unsustainability and detrimental environmental impact of using certain raw materials – palm oil being the well-documented example,” the Irish MEP emphasised.
On the contrary, according to Kelly, European biofuels that are produced “sustainably” should be promoted.
“European biofuels, such as those with high greenhouse gas savings and which generate high-protein animal feed – at a time when this is badly needed – are not the same, and this needs to be recognised,” he said.
The different environmental impact of first generation biofuels is also recognised by Green MEP Bas Eickhout, who is the rapporteur for the European Parliament’s environment committee on the file.
In an interview with EURACTIV yesterday (3 October), Eickhout suggested the introduction of “sustainability criteria” in order to make a clear distinction between “bad” biofuels like palm oil and “good” ones like some ethanol.
Commenting on Eickhout’s proposal, industry group Ethanol Europe said his vision could be realised by including a target for renewable energy use in transport to support “good biofuels”.
“Without a target, the potential in climate saving ethanol will not be tapped. It is essential that the EU continues its target beyond 2020, and sets [a target of] 15% to be met by 2030. Then sufficient incentives would be in place to make sure oil is replaced by ‘good’ ethanol,” the industry told EURACTIV.
Advanced biofuels and investors
In its proposal, the Commission focuses more on the direction of advanced or second-generation biofuels, claiming that they have a crucial role to play in decarbonising the transport sector.
But as environmental NGO Transport and Environment recently pointed out, this calls for a “clear and robust” sustainability framework that will provide certainty for investors.
Kelly agrees that advanced biofuels will be there after 2020 but has doubts about “regulatory uncertainty”, which has been at the center of the biofuels debate in recent years.
“If we want advanced biofuels to be developed and to contribute, we must give that certainty to investors, through the RED II, that we will have a supportive biofuels policy going forward,” the EPP lawmaker said.
Asked why an investor would put money into advanced biofuels considering the Commission’s U-turn on first generation biofuels, he replied: “Quite frankly, they wouldn’t.”
“This is why it is so important that RED II sends the right signal to industry and to investors, and I hope I can help ensure that that is the case in my work on the file in the coming months.”
Farmers are the ‘victims’
EU farmers have repeatedly expressed their reservations regarding the Commission’s proposal.
For many of them, biofuels are an emerging market, which has grown outside the Common Agricultural Policy framework and so helped them decrease their dependence on subsidies.
“Farmers are one of the groups that are hit most by the phase-out and, given many will have invested on the basis of the previous policy, to me that isn’t fair,” Kelly said, insisting that sustainable European biofuels that are grown by farmers, and bring added value by increasing the supply of high-protein animal feed, must continue to be supported post-2020.
The EU executive has admitted that it has not assessed the impact of its 2030 biofuels proposal over rural employment. But it expects neither losses nor gains.
Bernd Kuepker, an official at the Commission’s energy department (DG Energy), said, “We looked at different factors and generally what has been considered is that the highest share of jobs is in the agricultural sector and we don’t expect it to stop.”
“Job losses related to first-generation biofuels will be compensated by new ones in second generation biofuels. […] So, it’s certainly not a policy whose main objective is to create jobs, but the proposal will not decrease employment rates either,” he concluded.
Following the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee vote on RED II on 2 October, Emmanuel Desplechin, Secretary-General of the European renewable ethanol association (ePURE), commented:
“Just like the overwhelming majority of the European public, MEPs want to see a higher ambition for renewables in transport, to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and harmful pollutants. That means rejecting the Commission’s plan to phase out all crop-based biofuels and instead recognizing that not all biofuels are created equal. Members of the AGRI Committee have recognized that both sustainable crop-based and advanced ethanol contribute to decarbonising transport and therefore should be supported.”