Greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels such as palm oil, soybean and rapeseed are higher than those for fossil fuels when the effects of Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) are counted, according to leaked EU data seen by EURACTIV.
The default values assigned to the biofuels compare to those from Canada’s oil sands – also known as tar sands – according to the figures, which should be released along with long-awaited legislative proposals on biofuels in the spring.
A spokesperson for the European Commission said she could “not comment on leaked documents, such as impact assessments which have not been published.”
But industry and civil society sources described the data as credible and in line with other studies. One said it would sound a death knell for the biodiesel industry, if published.
“I think the science has proved clearly that because of the link to deforestation in places such as South East Asia, a lot of the biodiesels have significantly negative impacts on the climate,” Robbie Blake, a spokesman for Friends of the Earth, told EURACTIV.
Indirect land-use change
ILUC happens when forests and wetlands are cleared to compensate for lands taken to grow biofuels elsewhere.
One recent report predicted that all of Malaysia’s tropical peatswamp forests would be destroyed by the end of the decade because of ILUC – with alarming consequences for greenhouse gas emissions – unless the expansion of palm oil production was halted.
To measure the climate impact of fuels, Brussels favours assigning default values based on a calculation of their full lifecycle emissions, hence the debate over ILUC factors and biofuels.
In its recent review of the Fuel Quality Directive, the EU proposed a default value of 107g CO2 equivalent per megajoule of fuel (CO2/mj) for oil from tar sands, as compared to 87.5g CO2/mj for crude oil, reflecting the greater environmental harm that its production causes.
Yet while advanced ‘second generation’ biofuels comfortably outperform fossil fuels in the EU’s new data, palm oil is ascribed a value of 105g, soybean 103g, rapeseed 95g, and sunflower 86g, once ILUC is factored in.
The data propose ILUC-incorporating CO2/mj values for biofuels as follows:
- Palm Oil – 105g
- Soybean – 103g
- Rapeseed – 95g
- Sunflower – 86g
- Palm Oil with methane capture – 83g
- Wheat (process fuel not specified) – 64g
- Wheat (as process fuel natural gas used in CHP) – 47g
- Corn (Maize) – 43g
- Sugar Cane – 36g
- Sugar Beet – 34g
- Wheat (straw as process fuel in CHP plants) – 35g
- 2G Ethanol (land-using) – 32g
- 2G Biodiesel (land-using) – 21g
- 2G Ethanol (non-land using) – 9g
- 2G Biodiesel (non-land using) – 9g
Isabelle Maurizi, a spokesperson for the European Biodiesel Board, told EURACTIV that data such as the leaked biofuels values, and recent reports by the EU’s Joint Research Centre, the European Environmental Agency, and the International Food Policy Research Institute, were not consistent with research in the US.
“We do not recognise the validity of the science due to discrepancies in the results. The science is not grounded yet and is still immature so we would favour incentives in policy-making rather than punitive proposals,” she said.
Any application of the leaked values could severely hamper the ability of biodiesel manufacturers to enter into the EU’s new biofuels certification plan, announced last August.
This stipulates that certification only be awarded to biofuels which emit 35% less greenhouse gas than petrol, with the figure rising to 60% from 2018.
Advanced biofuels producers believe they would meet this standard and Rob Vierhout, the secretary-general of ePURE, a renewable ethanol association, said that the EU needed “a different shade of ILUC factor.”
“If indeed the effects on land use change depend on the feedstock that they’re using, then this has to be recognised in the policy,” he told EURACTIV.
In April 2009, the EU legislated that renewable energy sources such as biofuels should make up 10% of Europe’s transportation fuels mix by 2020, and this has legal as well as financial consequences.
Nusa Urbancic, of the Transport & Environment pressure group, called for the EU to “send a clear signal to the markets about which are the future biofuels that we want.”
“We have enough biodiesel to meet the current target which is a problem for the sector, because they overinvested following a different policy signal and to some extent their investments should be protected,” she told EURACTIV.
But with scientific knowledge of the climate advantages that advanced biofuels offered “there is no excuse now not to act to resolve that [problem],” she added.
A report published by the French national auditor on 24 January found that although farmers gained from the EU’s current biofuels policy, environmental benefits were ‘questionable’ and motorists ended up having to consume more fuel and pay high prices.