MEP proposes fewer restrictions on biofuels to meet higher renewables target

"I don't understand why biofuels and energy from plants shouldn’t be used in the transport sector. There's no logical reason,” MEP Pieper told EURACTIV. [Scharfsinn / Shutterstock.com]

The amount of bioenergy in the EU’s transport sector will increase under plans by the lawmaker leading the European Parliament’s position on the EU’s renewable energy law, a scenario likely to rankle green legislators.

Markus Pieper, the centre-right German MEP in charge of the file, has proposed higher sub-targets for advanced biofuels and the removal of certain restrictions on crop-based biofuels to meet the EU’s renewable energy goal.

Pieper has pushed up the renewable electricity and fuel greenhouse gas reduction target in the transport sector from 13% to 20% by 2030, intending to incentivise advanced biofuels and synthetic fuels.

The share of advanced biofuels and biogas in the transport sector has correspondingly been increased from a minimum of 0.2% in 2022, 0.5% in 2025, and 2.2% in 2030, to at least 0.4% in 2022, 1% in 2025, and 5% in 2030.

Targets for low-carbon hydrogen are additionally introduced, with a share of at least 2.6% in 2028 and 5% in 2030.

The rule that member states may not exceed one percentage point more than the 2020 share of crop-based biofuels in their transport sector is removed, but the 7% energy consumption cap remains.

Deforestation concerns

Food-and-feed based biofuels have become a target for environmentalists in recent years, with fears raised that the bloc’s demand for specific biofuel feedstocks is driving deforestation outside of Europe and may diminish food supply.

A recent study by the German NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe found that the vast amounts of land required by crop-based biofuels make them more environmentally damaging than fossil fuels.

German study slams crop-based biofuels as 'a cure worse than the disease'

Crop-based biofuels are as damaging to the climate as fossil fuels, a new study by environmental NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) has found. But industry has been quick to reject the study, dismissing its findings as “erroneous” and “misleading”.

However, the Pieper report states that the question of deforestation caused by an indirect land-use change (ILUC) was “fully addressed” by a 2018 delegated act that effectively banned palm oil as a feedstock in the EU.

Asked by EURACTIV about the criticism put forward by Deutsche Umwelthilfe, MEP Pieper pointed to other studies “that prove exactly the opposite”.

“I do not believe that this competition between biofuel and food or feed crops still exists in Europe,” he said.

“However, I also agree with many environmentally oriented NGOs that we need to take a much closer look in other parts of the world before we import biomass and components of biofuels into Europe,” he added.

Given the EU’s ambitious renewable energy targets, Pieper argues that using by-products and waste from agriculture is sensible to support the energy transition. However, he remains opposed to the replacement of agriculture with energy crops.

“I don’t understand why biofuels and energy from plants shouldn’t be used in the transport sector. There’s no logical reason,” he said.

The amended text highlights the environmental impact of renewable energy sources and the original proposal’s reference to the potential harm caused by biofuels.

“There are also indirect effects from deforestation, soil compaction and flight effects from new wind turbines and also land-use conflicts from solar parks,” the amended text reads.

Industry reaction

André Paula Santos, public affairs director with the European Biodiesel Board (EBB), was positive towards the amendments, calling the changes “a step in the right direction”.

“We need to have all the available alternatives to get to the [Renewable Energy] target because a very high target without any meaningful solutions matters very little. So, I support the very high target,” Santos told EURACTIV.

Santos said he is “puzzled” by the attacks on biofuels given the urgent need to displace fossil fuels, arguing that pushing ever-stricter sustainability criteria for biodiesel results in a greater reliance on climate-wrecking oil.

“I’ve seen proposals from a number of MEPs to put the greenhouse gas reduction threshold at 70%. That means that a biofuel that saves 50%, or 55%, or 60% would be out. And I still think that saving 50% is good,” he said.

“If you only aim at perfection, then you’re going to have a very little pool of available alternatives to fossil fuels. And then who wins in the end? The fossil fuel industry because they continue with the market share,” he added.

While supporting MEP Pieper’s amendment to scrap 2020 as a reference year for national caps, EBB believes that the blanket 7% cap, which limits the quantity of crop-based biofuels that can count towards renewable energy targets, is problematic.

“A cap for us is never a good solution because it doesn’t ensure the sustainability of anything,” he said. “If a biofuel is sustainable, if there’s strong sustainability criteria, if there’s strong verification from the certification schemes, then, in fact, that cap doesn’t make much sense.”

“Global food security crisis”

Shadow rapporteur for the Greens/EFA group, MEP Ville Niinistö, favours a stricter approach to crop-based biofuels, arguing that a faster phase-out of all food-and-feed-based bioenergy is a “necessity”.

The Finnish MEP told EURACTIV that the EU’s biofuel approach should be reconsidered given the instability caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We have even more reasons now [to phase out crop-based biofuels] with the war in Ukraine, as Ukraine and Russia are large global suppliers of agricultural commodities, that we in the EU use also for biofuels”, Niinistö told EURACTIV.

“With halting our crop biofuel use faster, we can alleviate the potentially looming global food security crisis,” he added.

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Parliament has proposed raising the EU’s share of renewable energy to 45% – 5 percentage points more than the goal tabled by the European Commission in July. At present, just over 22% of Europe’s energy comes from renewables.

Key lawmaker tables radical overhaul of EU’s renewable energy directive

Plans to speed up permits for wind farms, promote biofuels in transport, and boost imports of green hydrogen were presented on Tuesday (15 January) by a lawmaker tasked with drawing up European Parliament’s position on the EU renewable energy directive.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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