EU scientists’ biofuels warnings were ignored


EXCLUSIVE / The European Commission ignored an internal recommendation from its own scientists for mandatory carbon accounts and crop-specific measurements in a proposal to address the Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) from biofuels production.

The EU typically bases its policies around advice from the Joint Research Centre (JRC), but a warning from the scientists that the bloc’s biofuels policy was also making a “significant contribution” to the deforestation of peatlands in Malaysia and Indonesia was ignored.

The EU also neglected expert counsel that any reduced greenhouse gas emissions from fuel crops depended upon increased food scarcity.

Sources say that the chief of staff for Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn presented an opinion contrary to his directorate's science team at a cabinet college meeting discussing an ILUC proposal on 11 October 2012. The draft was then watered down, and has since been kicked into the legislative long grass.

EURACTIV obtained the JRC's recommendation and other documents in an 'Access to Information' application. The recommendations note was sent to an undisclosed directorate on 10 October 2012, at the height of a furious lobby battle which pitted biofuels companies against environmentalists.

At issue was a proposal for mandatory carbon accounting of all fuel crops, assignations of emissions to crops, and a 5% cap on the contribution that first generation biofuels could make to an EU target for providing 10% of fuel from renewable sources by 2020.

Industry emails to the Commission at this time accused Brussels of “purposely causing the death of the whole EU biodiesel sector” and questioned whether the ILUC phenomenon even existed. 

But “it is important that the principle of full GHG accounting is introduced in the proposed amendment by including ILUC,” the JRC's recommendations say. They also call for “inclusion of the ILUC factors as written, resolving to update them quickly when new data becomes available, before the industry makes investment plans.”

Other documents released in the trawl show that the JRC expected this update to increase emissions estimates for food crops such as sugars, cereals and vegetable oils, because a key International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report informing the proposal, had undervalued them.

A separate JRC briefing warns that “a significant contribution to global ILUC emissions due to EU biofuels policies comes from the conversion of peatlands, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia. This causes oilseed crops to have a worse environmental performance than cereals/sugar crops used for ethanol.”

Cabinet ructions

Yet on the evening of the day that the JRC sent its recommendations (10 October), members of Quinn’s cabinet called for “a possible delay in implementation” of the EU’s proposal and expressed concerns about the gloomiest industry forecasts, according to minutes of a cabinet meeting previously obtained by EURACTIV.

Earlier that day, members of Quinn’s cabinet had met with representatives of the Irish-based Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd (EERL). Its chief executive, Eric Sievers, presented the Commission with a paper calling for ILUC judgements that supported ethanol and penalised biodiesel.

Although ethanol performs better in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, a number of documents from the JRC and its Alternative Fuels department (ALFA) underline that the IFPRI report implicitly traded-off greenhouse gas emissions against decreased access to food, arguing that using crops for fuel increased food prices elsewhere. 

“Reduced food quality/variety is taken to reduce ILUC,” one JRC briefing says. “In other words, this means that ILUC reduction from people eating less and worse is taken as a benefit for biofuels.”

Another ALFA briefing calls for this effect to be removed from the ILUC model, even though it would mean “very substantially raising the ILUC factor for ethanol cereals”.

The cabinet had been buttressed with a 17-page internal steering brief for the meet with EERL which reflected the JRC’s positioning. But by the end of the day, the scientists' positions on ILUC appear to have been over-ruled in cabinet.


ILUC is the process which takes place when land for food crops is sequestered in one place, to replace land taken to grow crops for fuel elsewhere.

The biofuels industry disputes the scale, nature and agency of the problem, arguing that it is impossible to prove, and that crop displacements can be ameliorated by improved yields.   

In another briefing note, the ALFA analysts concede that “uncertainty is intrinsic in all models so will never be completely avoided.”

“But the science has improved significantly, and further investigation of modelling work and sensitivity analysis has allowed uncertainties to be largely reduced,” they continue. “Even with uncertainties, the best estimate of ILUC is not zero.”

Scientists and industry are largely agreed that second generation biofuels offer the best means of addressing ILUC. In the absence of incentives though, EU states' National Renewable Energy Action Plans predict that these will only make up 1% of total EU transport fuels by 2020.  

The Commission’s ILUC proposal would have quadrupled incentives for producing these more advanced biofuels made from algae, wastes and residue, which are thought crucial for the future of aviation fuel. 

But the proposal is currently on life support after energy ministers failed to reach agreement on it. Mention of the subject has been removed from the agenda of the Energy Council on 4 March and no further date for discussion has yet been set.

‘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.

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