EU governments fail to agree limits on food-based biofuels


Energy ministers from the 28 EU member states failed on Thursday (12 December) to agree on a compromise deal to limit the use of transport fuels made from food crops, which critics say pushes up food prices and can do more harm than good to the environment.

EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said the delay would only damage the European Union in its efforts to reduce dependence on imported oil and gas and curb greenhouse gas emissions.

"If we delay and postpone, the winners will be OPEC and Russia," he said.

Last year in response to warnings about food price inflation and unintended consequences on the environment, the European Commission, the EU's executive, proposed to cap the bloc's use of crop-based biofuels at 5%.

That compares with an existing goal to get 10 percent of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020, an amount that would be almost entirely derived from food-based fuels.

>> Read: EU calls time on first-generation biofuels

Lawmakers in the European Parliament backed a slightly higher cap than the Commission proposed of 6%, stirring opposition from the biofuels industry.

The industry has invested on the basis of the original 10% goal and accuses the Commission of a U-turn that it says will force plant closures and cost jobs.

EU energy ministers debated a new compromise of 7% put forward by Lithuania, holder of the EU presidency. To encourage the transition to advanced biofuels, it also proposed allowing member states to set up a national sub-target within the 10% transport target for renewables.

>> Read: Lithuania mounts rescue bid for first generation biofuels

But member states were deeply divided.

Some, such as Poland and Hungary, argued a 7% cap was too low, while Denmark and Belgium, for instance, said it was too high.

Others said it should be accepted on pragmatic grounds. "There are some good victories for the environment compared to the current directive," said Ed Davey, Britain's energy and climate change secretary.

Danish Minister for Climate, Energy and Buildings Martin Lidegaard wanted more. He called for a sub-target to spur new generation biofuels made from algae and waste, a cap of 5% on crop-based biofuels in line with the Commission proposal, and accounting of factors such as indirect land use change (ILUC) as soon as there was "a solid, scientific basis".

ILUC refers to the displacement effect biofuels can cause as land is cleared for extra food crops, sometimes negating the aim of curbing emissions because it removes trees that serve as carbon sinks.

Greece, which takes over the EU presidency in January, will take up the biofuels dossier. However, the changeover of EU institutions next year, with parliamentary elections in May and the expiry of the current Commission in October, means a final deal is unlikely before 2015.

For different reasons, seven member states ended up rejecting the proposed compromise package – Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands and Poland.

While energy and biofuel firms oppose a lower limit on first generation biofuel, food companies are strong supporters.

"The proposed 5% cap by the European Commission would have been a significant step towards phasing out the use of food for fuel," said a letter to the 28 EU energy ministers from Paul Polman, chief executive officer of Unilever plc, and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of the board at Nestle S.A..

The European Biodiesel Board (EBB), an industry association, welcomed the rejection of the proposed method to calculate so-called indirect land use change (ILUC) caused by crop-based biofuels, saying it relied on “ungrounded science”.

“The EBB welcomes the outcome of the Energy Council as an opportunity to rely on sound facts in this complex file. Further work is indeed for assessing the true positive impacts of our sector in terms of energy security, rural development, and decarbonisation of transport” said, Raffaello Garofalo, EBB Secretary General.

ePure, an association representing ethanol producers, also welcomed the rejection of the compromise package on biofuels, saying it would have allowed “a range of accountancy tricks” for EU countries to meet their renewable energy target, without providing incentives for the production of advanced biofuels.

“We welcome the good sense some Member States had to oppose this political compromise. The rejecFon reflects the complexity of the issues and divergent views around ILUC. Too many parameters formed a proposal that would have been almost impossible to implement," said Rob Vierhout, the Secretary General of ePure.

The environmental group Greenpeace was disappointed by the minister’s failure to reach agreement on capping food-based biofuels saying the delay will take a heavy toll on forest, climate and food security.

“The growth of biofuels competing with food for land must be halted and this cannot wait,” said Greenpeace EU forest policy director Sébastien Risso.

In a statement, Greenpeace said the Lithuanian EU Presidency had made “too many concessions to hard-liners like Poland and Hungary” which end up voted against the proposal, delaying an agreement into 2014. “Greenpeace calls on the upcoming Greek EU Presidency to pay more attention to countries like Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy, who called for a more progressive deal”.

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.

This is because the demand for the missing grain is typically met by the clearing of forests, grasslands and wetlands elsewhere to grow it – and the consequent depletion of the planet's carbon absorption stocks. This process is exacerbated when the forests are burned, and vast quantities of climate-warming emissions are pumped into the atmosphere.

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

Some in the biofuel 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 biofuel production can also be fed to animals, they say, so reducing the pressure on land resources

  • 1 Jan.-30 June 2014: Greek Presidency of the Council of the EU
  • 22-25 May 2014: European election
  • 1 Nov. 2014: Target date for new Commission to take office

Council of the EU

Lithuanian Presidency

Business and industry

Environmental NGOs

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