Doubts cloud launch of EU biofuels sustainability schemes


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.

Court case

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.  

The Commission denied this. But four leaked EU-commissioned reports, including one draft by the Joint Research Centre, questioned the environmental credentials of biofuels.

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.

Seven schemes

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).

ePure, the European renewable ethanol association, welcomed the Commission's approval of the seven schemes, saying it enabled Europe to become "a front runner in promoting sustainable biofuels".

However, it warned that "if wider issues such as global deforestation are to be addressed effectively, then the Commission must apply binding criteria to crops used for other end uses, such as the food sector and solid biomass".

"A truly level playing field is the best guarantee to avoid potential indirect land use effects – we don't need contentious ILUC science when we already have such practical solutions at our disposal," said ePure Secretary-General Rob Vierhout.

WWF, the global conservation organisaiton, welcomed the Commission's official approval of the sustainability schemes, saying it represented "an important step".

"These voluntary schemes enable biofuels producing companies to prove that they meet the sustainability requirements set by the European Commission under the Renewables Directive," said Imke Luebbeke, EU bio-energy policy officer at WWF's European Policy Office.

However, the WWF said it supports only three of the seven schemes – RTRS EU RED, Bonsucro EU and RSB EU RED – adding that "these three schemes have been developed in multi-stakeholder processes and deliver criteria for social and environmental standards, which go beyond what the EU has set as legal minimum requirements".

'Indirect land-use change' means that if you take a field of grain and switch the crop to biofuel, somebody somewhere will go hungry unless those missing tonnes of grain are grown elsewhere.

Economics often dictates that the crops to make up the shortfall come from tropical zones, and so encourage farmers to carve out new land from forests.

Burning forests to clear that land can pump vast quantities of climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere, enough in theory to cancel out any of the benefits that biofuels were meant to bring.

The European Commission has run 15 studies on different biofuel crops, which on average conclude that over the next decade Europe's biofuels policies might have an indirect impact equal to 4.5 million hectares of land – an area the size of Denmark.

Some in the biofuels industry argue that the Commission's science is flawed and that the issue could be tackled by a major overhaul of agricultural strategy to improve productivity or by pressing abandoned farmland back into action. Waste products from biofuels production can also be fed to animals, they say, so reducing the pressure on land resources.

  • As of July 2011: Only biofuels that emit at least 35% less greenhouse gases than petrol over their whole production chain will qualify to receive certification.
  • End 2011: European Commission to report on the sustainability criteria for solid and gaseous biomass.
  • From 2017: Savings to reach at least 50%.
  • From 2018: Savings to reach at least 60%.

Subscribe to our newsletters