Drivers are the top consumers of palm oil in Europe

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As the holiday break starts, the European Parliament is still trapped in the middle of intense discussions on the use of biofuels in Europe. [Alan Lewis / Flickr]

As millions of European hit the roads this month for a well-earned summer break, most won’t know what they’re driving on, writes Laura Buffet.

Laura Buffet is clean fuels manager at sustainable transport NGO Transport & Environment.

July is the start of the summer holidays, and for many in Europe the rush for some relaxing time in the countryside, the mountains or the beach. You might be one of the millions of Europeans who will be driving your car to your holiday destination with your family or friends. On the way there, one important question is going to be the fuel price at the pump. But holiday drivers most of the time don’t really know what they’re driving on.

People are well aware that European cars are running on fossil fuels. But very few drivers (if any) know that EU cars currently are driving partly on biofuels. Or if they are aware, they don’t know what type of biofuels and which impacts they have. These biofuels were initially promoted by public policy as a solution to decarbonise transport fuels, but most of the current EU biofuels have proven to have negative impacts for the climate and the environment. Rapeseed is the most used oil crop for biofuels at EU level but more and more palm oil is being used, making you, EU drivers, the top consumers of palm oil in Europe.

As the holiday break starts, the European Parliament is still trapped in the middle of intense discussions on the use of biofuels in Europe. Using land to grow crops for biofuels displaces other land uses, a phenomenon called Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) which causes additional greenhouse gas emissions, especially because it causes deforestation. In the past few years, more and more evidence emerged about the climate impacts of biofuels and several studies have shown that ILUC impacts are significant. For example, based on estimates from the latest study conducted for the European Commission, palm oil biodiesel is on average 3 times worse for the climate than fossil diesel, and biodiesel from rapeseed is 1.2 times worse. Put it simply, the cure is worse than the disease.

To limit the damages done by promoting crop-based biofuels, the EU started to reform its biofuels policy already back in 2012 and finally adopted a political compromise in 2015 which limits at 7% the amount of food-based biofuels in transport that can be counted as “renewables” under the main biofuels law, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). But the reform did not manage to account for the full climate impacts of biofuels – which means that EU food-based biodiesel is still considered a sustainable fuel despite projections showing that on average it is 80% worse for the climate than regular diesel.

Since then, the European Commission has flagged many times the need to phase-out support for food-based biofuels and to move to more sustainable alternative such as “advanced biofuels”, from waste and residues, and renewable electricity. In November 2016, it has put a new proposal to limit the share of food-based biofuels in the RED at 3.8% in 2030. The European Parliament and the Council are now discussing this proposal. The rapporteur for the file in the Environment Committee of the European Parliament – MEP Bas Eickhout – has recently proposed to account for the full climate impacts of biofuels and keep the limit at 3.8%. It also confirms that bioenergy produced from food crops should not receive any financial support after 2020. If passed, its proposal would mean that high-emitting biofuels – mainly food-based biodiesel such as palm oil, rapeseed or soy – would be disqualified from policy support at EU level.

This is a good basis for discussions and one that would at least make sure that EU policy doesn’t force EU drivers to use high-emitting biofuels that lead to deforestation, biodiversity loss and land grabbing.

But more ambition is needed to ensure that eventually the policy support to land-based biofuels transitions more quickly to better alternatives such as sustainable advanced biofuels from waste and residues and renewable electricity. One way to do this is to phase out completely by 2030 the policy support for land-based biofuels. In parallel, a clear sustainability framework for the use of advanced biofuels from waste and residues and more incentives for renewable electricity are necessary – two points where Mr Eickhout makes very good suggestions.

If the European Parliament shows ambition and follows Mr Eickhout’s recommendations, the Parliament would make EU fuels cleaner, meaning drivers don’t have to burn palm oil and other vegetable oils in their cars and would help the EU stop importing deforestation. When driving to your summer holidays, you might not remember all these policy details, but you might at least look differently at the fuels you fill your car with.

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For more details on the climate and social impacts of food-based biofuels, please visit: www.biofuelsreform.org 

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