Princeton academics accuse EU biofuels policy of harming climate aims

The European Commission said that it is committed to ensuring the sustainability of biofuels, which it characterised as “an important element” of the EU’s renewable energy policy. [Vitalii Stock / Shutterstock.com]

The EU’s promotion of biofuels as a renewable energy source is undermining the bloc’s climate goals, a new study by Princeton University academics and CIRAD, a French agricultural research body, has found. Industry has accused the report of ignoring the benefits of energy crops to further an anti-biofuels narrative.

The report criticises European lawmakers for incentivising the growth of crops for biofuels through bioenergy policies, arguing that the land dedicated to biofuels should be reforested or converted for agricultural purposes to meet climate objectives.

Under Commission modelling, the opportunity cost inherent in dedicating land to biofuels is not recorded, undermining its true climate cost, according to Tim Searchinger of Princeton University, the lead author of the report.

“While [the European Commission] talks about sequestering more carbon in Europe and improving biodiversity in Europe, the bottom line is that it basically sacrifices all of that for bioenergy,” he said.

Europe’s decision to sequester land for biofuel production means that agricultural land must be sought abroad, leading to EU countries “outsourcing” land needs, the study concluded. 

“We are clearing about 12 million hectares of land per year for new food products. And [policymakers are] saying that taking some of the highest yielding existing cropland in the world out of food production and using it for something else is free? It doesn’t have any effect? How could that possibly be?” Searchinger asked.

The study’s authors advocate that EU biofuel consumption be decreased to 2010 levels, with much of the land currently dedicated to the production of ethanol and biodiesel repurposed to boost forestry and food production.

Doing so would allow Europe to restore the continent’s much diminished biodiversity, a move that would have knock-on climate benefits, according to Searchinger. 

Cutting food importation would additionally take pressure off of countries outside of the bloc to clear land for farming, reducing the EU’s “appropriation” of foreign land, the authors argue.

“Virtually all climate strategies require that agricultural land stop expanding to preserve forests and their savannas. Europe has a critical role to play. Yet today we outsource deforestation,” said Patrice Dumas of the Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD), co-author of the report.

“Our analysis estimates that Europe’s ‘outsourcing’ of land causes a loss of 400 million tons of CO2 per year. These losses roughly cancel out Europe’s entire annual forest carbon sink today,” he added.

The study further found that the EU’s “Fit for 55’ climate laws package, which aims to cut EU emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, will harm biodiversity in the EU and destroy carbon sinks, making it more difficult to reach the bloc’s ambitious climate targets.

According to Searchinger, a change to the EU’s carbon accounting for biofuels is needed.

“The basic solution is to count the opportunity costs of devoting land to bioenergy when evaluating their climate impacts,” said Searchinger. “That means recognising that land is limited and that if Europe uses it for bioenergy, it means more land is needed elsewhere for food and there is less opportunity to save and restore forests.”

EU biofuels policy

Asked by EURACTIV about the findings of the Princeton and CIRAD study, the European Commission said that it is committed to ensuring the sustainability of biofuels, which it characterised as “an important element” of the EU’s renewable energy policy.

“Member states remain free to use and import biofuels, but they will be able to include them in their renewable energy targets only up to the specific limits set in the Directive – unless they are certified as low-ILUC,” a Commission official told EURACTIV, referring to indirect land-use change, the phenomenon in which farmers opt to grow lucrative biofuel crops rather than food.

Brussels has set a 7% limit on the quantity of crop-based biofuels used in the transport sector. Member states also cannot go beyond a 1% point increase compared to the 2020 national share of these fuels in rail and road transport. For example, if the consumption level in 2020 was 4%, the country could not surpass 5% this year.

The Commission additionally adopted a delegated act that gives biofuels feedstock a percentage score based on their contribution to ILUC. 

Only palm oil, which has a percentage score of 45% for land expansion, has been effectively banned as a transport fuel in the EU. Palm oil will be entirely phased out as a fuel source within the EU by 2030.

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“No practical relevance”

The findings of the study were challenged by industry players, who accused the authors of failing to recognise that EU biofuel production greatly reduces the need to import animal feed and fossil fuels from outside the bloc.

The production of ethanol and biodiesel creates protein which is used for animal food, while biofuels use the excess fats and carbohydrates that cannot be consumed, said André Paula Santos, public affairs director with the European Biodiesel Board (EBB). 

Biofuels’ promotion of protein production actually contributes to mitigating global food insecurity, he argued, highlighting the industry’s ability to store and transport grain as assets that can be used in the case of food shortages.

Santos also rejected claims that the biofuels industry is indirectly causing the destruction of forests outside of Europe.

“European biofuels policies do not ‘outsource deforestation’ as the report describes. All biofuels used in the EU, whether imported or homegrown, abide by strict sustainability criteria, including strict requirements to avoid any use of deforested land,” he said. 

Santos referenced the EU’s decision to phase-out high-ILUC biofuels as evidence that current biofuel production is in line with the EU’s climate targets. 

ePURE, a trade association representing European ethanol producers, was similarly critical of the study. Simona Vackeová, ePURE Secretary-General ad interim, argued that the report has “no practical relevance at all” to renewable ethanol in Europe given its crops’ low-ILUC rating.

The farming of crops for EU biofuel consumption in 2018 amounted to less than 3% of total EU cropland, Vackeová said. This is less than the share of fallow land in the EU, she added.

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