The EU's approval of a first batch of seven sustainability schemes for biofuels marked a "big step" towards climate-friendly transport, Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said on 19 July. But reactions have been mixed.
Biofuels producers hailed the schemes for addressing sustainability concerns, but there was a chorus of criticism from NGOs over a perceived lack of definition, verification resources and sensitivity to land-use issues.
The new system allows companies in Europe's €9 billion bio-diesel industry to seek a five-year green standard under the EU scheme, or comparable national ones.
Certification will then be awarded to any which produce biofuels emitting 35% less greenhouse gas than petrol, with the figure rising to 60% from 2018.
"We have to make sure that neither rainforest nor sensitive ecosystems are damaged by being farmed for the production of biofuels," Oettinger told a press conference in Brussels.
Adequate monitoring over the "whole production chain" will have to be demonstrated and biofuels grown on land with "high biodiversity value" will not be allowed, he said.
A question of definition
But environmentalists complain that the European Commission still has no definition for what "highly biodiverse grasslands" actually are.
"According to an International Food Policy Research Institute study for the European Commission, 16% of lands converted because of the biofuels policy will come from grasslands and savannah," said Nusa Urbancic, biofuels policy officer for green NGO Transport & Environment.
"If there is no definition, how can we know which kinds of grasslands should be converted?," she told EURACTIV.
Biofuels producers, though, were satisfied with the new sustainability criteria.
"[It] is excellent news for the industry insofar as it provides guarantees on the environmental sustainability of biofuels," said Kåre Riis Nielsen, director of European affairs for Novozymes, a member of one of the new schemes, the Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels.
"But other regulatory issues such as the impact of Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) should be clarified as soon as possible," he added.
ILUC is the process whereby forests and wetlands are cleared to compensate for lands taken to grow biofuels elsewhere, so increasing CO2 emissions.
A Commission communication on ILUC has been postponed until after the summer break, but the EU executive's energy department is known to favour a more generous 'greenhouse gas threshold' for measuring the environmental contribution made by biofuels.
Oettinger insisted that Brussels was at least taking measures to ensure that biofuels were not produced on rainforest land which had been directly cleared for biofuel cultivation.
"If we fear that something is going wrong somewhere, we will write to a government and ask them to check it out with their authorities on the spot," he explained.
EU officials later confirmed that independent auditors would monitor the sustainability criteria on the ground, and they would in turn be monitored by Brussels.
Asked by EURACTIV, the officials said they could give no figures for the numbers of auditors or EU staff that would be involved. But the auditors could work for several schemes, they said.
According to Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth, this could give rise to "conflicts of interest".
"Frequently we've come across cases where people have been hired and sometimes even paid off by the biofuel or palm oil plantations," he told EURACTIV.
Last May, Friends of the Earth and several other environmental NGOs launched court action against the European Commission, claiming that it had failed in its transparency obligations by withholding information about voluntary certification schemes.
One study predicted that meeting the 2020 target could indirectly cause a one-time release of around 1,000 megatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, more than twice Germany's annual emissions.
The EU is committed to increasing the share of renewable energy in transport to 10% by 2020, including from biofuels but also others such as hydrogen and green electricity.
One EU official told EURACTIV that the Commission's energy department was afraid it would not be able to meet that target.
Blake, however, was afraid that it would.
"Because of ILUC, the emissions that are released from the worst biofuel crops like rapeseed, palm oil and soy are worse for the climate than even using fossil fuels," he said.
The seven certification schemes that received approval from the Commission are the following:
- ISCC (German government-financed scheme covering all types of biofuels);
- Bonsucro EU (Roundtable initiative for sugarcane-based biofuels; focus on Brazil);
- RTRS EU RED (Roundtable initiative for soy-based biofuels; focus on Argentina and Brazil);
- RSB EU RED (Roundtable initiative covering all types of biofuels);
- 2BSvs (French industry scheme covering all types of biofuels);
- RSBA (Industry scheme for Abengoa covering their supply chain), and;
- Greenergy (Industry scheme for Greenergy covering sugar cane ethanol from Brazil).