Lawmakers vote to block EU biofuels bill

A report by the international charity has claimed that crop-based fuels could push up the price of some foods by up to 36% by 2020. [Shutterstock]

A proposal to limit Europe’s use of food-based fuel crops has been stalled by a vote on the European Parliament’s environment committee yesterday (17 October), and may not now be decided before 2015.

Parliament’s rapporteur on the legislation, French liberal MEP Corinne Lepage, had been due to begin fast-tracked negotiations with EU states over the bill, which will now go to a second reading.

The draft legislation would have limited to 6% the share of Europe’s transport fuel that such crops could make up by 2020.

But a procedural vote requiring a two-thirds qualified majority fell by two votes – on a 34 votes to 18 count – reputedly because it was “taking place late on a Thursday afternoon,” as one observer put it.

“The EPP [European People's Party] and the far right have defended the first generation biofuels lobby well,” Lepage tweeted immediately after the vote. “Seven billion euros per year subsidy!”

Europe’s Council of Ministers must now agree a joint position to be submitted to the Parliament for a new ballot, but this is not thought likely to happen before May 2014 when new elections are due.

Nusa Urbancic, the clean fuels manager of Transport and Environment, a green think tank, described the committee vote as “a victory for the current biofuels industry over the future one.”

“There is no certainty for the advanced biofuels sector and a lot of them will probably move out of Europe now as they have threatened to before,” she told EURACTIV. “But the bad ones – the biodiesel sector – can continue to produce for a bit longer.”

Rafaello Garofalo, the secretary-general of the European Biodiesel Board, an industry group, said that the first generation biofuels industry was also investing in advanced biofuels but that the current proposals “risk penalising part of the industry while giving rewards to another”.

“The vote today confirms that there are huge doubts on the ILUC [Indirect Land use Change] file and confirms that the European parliament itself has a contradictory approach and a lot of doubts and uncertainties,” he said.  

He welcomed the opportunity for more time, adding that the EU’s decision could now be taken in a “quieter environment” by the next European Commission and Parliament after the EU elections in May 2014.

Original EU target

In 2009, the EU first set a target for sourcing 10% of Europe’s transport fuel to renewable energy by 2020, almost all of it to come from first-generation crop-based fuels, such as biodiesel.

As these food crops already have a 5% share of the EU’s transport market, the 6% bar would have effectively called time on the industry.

The EU had hoped that the gap in their 2020 target would be made up by advanced biofuels made from algae, waste and organic residues, as these have no effect on land use patterns, which EU scientists say may cause food price hikes, or higher emissions.

The EU’s Joint Research Center last month reported that if Europe’s subsidies were removed from first generation biofuels, the price of food stuffs such as vegetable oil would be up to 50% lower in Europe by 2020, and 15% lower elsewhere in the world.

Faustine Defossez from the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a green campaign group, said: “Today’s vote shows the willingness of several EU representatives to pander to vested interests while ignoring environmental and social concerns. She added “This refusal to set the policy on the right track rapidly is anything but a gift for the biofuels industry though they may consider it as such in the mean time. This vote increases uncertainties around the future of the biofuels industry while by allowing emissions, social and environmental damages to further increase, it will increase the unpopularity of this policy in the eyes of the European citizens ”.

Kåre Riis Nielsen, the European Affairs Director of Novozymes, an advanced biofuels firm, said in a statement that he regretted the environment committee's vote: "Once again policy-makers are delaying decision-making on iLUC. This is bad news for industry and investors who need clarity. Ongoing regulatory uncertainty is jeopardising all the parallel EU efforts to attract much needed investments in innovative renewable energy technologies, including in advanced biofuels."

In other reaction, the vote “sends a signal that our Parliamentarians do not take climate change seriously enough.” Trees Robijns, BirdLife Europe Senior Agriculture and Bioenergy Policy Officer said. “Today’s setback means a delay in negotiations with more emissions as a result, something our environment can’t afford.”

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

  • 21 October: European Parliament’s industry committee to vote on negotiating mandate for biofuels proposal

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