EU countries dilute draft law capping food-based biofuels

Biofuels contribute to food price pressures, 'land grabbing' and carbon emissions. [Herr Olsen/Flickr]

The European Parliament is losing the battle on limiting the use of food-based biofuels, after it made major concessions to member states following negotiations with the Council, according to a leaked document seen by EURACTIV.

A draft law capping the use of biofuels derived from food crops is currently being negotiated in so-called trilogue talks between legislators (the Commission, the Parliament and the EU Council representing member states).

The use of biofuels was encouraged in 2009, when the EU mandated a 10% share for renewable energy in the transport sector.

The law was blamed for pushing up food prices and leading to deforestation outside of Europe, where land is being cleared up to cultivate energy crops.

As green groups rang the alarm over the environmental damages of biofuels, the European Commission proposed a new law restricting fuels made from food crops. 

But while member states agreed to a 7% cap on this type of biofuels, the Parliament sought to tighten that target to a maximum of 6%.

>> Read: EU lawmakers back 6% cap on food-based biofuels

In Brussels, the trilogue negotiations currently taking place are proving tricky, with member states piling pressure on the Parliament to make concessions.

Disagreement centers on the cap, the accounting of emissions from alternative fuels, and the sustainability of advanced biofuels. 

Instead of a 6% cap on food-based biofuels, the Council is pushing for a more flexible 7% cap, which the Parliament accepted, according to a leaked version of the draft agreement. Latvia, which currently holds the rotating Presidency of the EU, suggested “an optional application of the cap for conventional biofuels” instead of an obligatory one, the draft says.

The Council is also winning the argument over how emissions related to indirect land use change (ILUC) should be accounted for.

Deforested land releases high amounts of greenhouse gas after the trees have been cut down. Parliament, supported by environmental campaigners, pushed for these emissions to be accounted for, but the Council refused to include them from calculations of carbon emissions.

Provisions on so-called advanced biofuels, made from woody biomass, which do not compete with food crops, are also keeping the negotiators busy. The Council is not ready to accept the Parliament’s suggestion for a binding target of 1.25% for advanced biofuels, pushing instead for a non-binding target of 0.5% .

Negotiations to follow

The first trilogue meeting has already taken place, and a second one was scheduled on Tuesday (24 March) where further discussions were expected.

“It’s vital that MEPs and national governments come around the table to get a deal to prevent the EU’s disastrous biofuels policy causing further deforestation, hunger, land grabs and climate change,” said Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

The European Parliament “must bargain hard and stand up to some of the dinosaurs in the Council to halt the further expansion of biofuels from food and land,” said Blake. 

But Christofer Fjellner, a Swedish MEP from the European People’s Party (EPP), agrees with many of the Council’s demands. 

“One thing that is often forgotten in the debate on first generation biofuels is that there are first generation biofuels that are performing well. Sometimes even better than the second generation biofuels,” Fjellner said. 

“Legislators should not fight symbolic battles that they know they cannot win, that only makes the process more difficult. And this is especially true with the strict deadlines that applies in second reading,” he continued. 

Christofer Fjellner MEP, the European People's Party Shadow Rapporteur in the Environment Committee said

"Adding ILUC factors to European legislation would only be bad legislation. And even if we assume that the Commission got the numbers right, we all know for sure that the numbers will change in the future. By adding ILUC factors, we would create more uncertainty around the European biofuels legislation, and if there is one thing that is not needed if we want to support renewables, it is more uncertainty. Once again, we should demand more from our legislators than this."

The EU has a target of 10% renewable energy in transport fuel by the year 2020, contained within the renewable energy directive (RED).

Meanwhile, the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) requires a 6% reduction in the carbon footprint of transport fuels by the same year.

EU negotiators have agreed to a 7% cap on biofuels made from food crops in transport fuel, in a move environmentalists say was a “timid step” in the right direction.

>> Read: EU diplomats agree to 7% biofuels cap

Campaigners have pushed for the accounting of indirect land-use change (ILUC) from biofuels in EU legislation, saying demand for bioenergy in Europe was causing farmers in countries such as Indonesia to switch crops from food production to energy, causing a rise in food prices.

Some in the biofuel industry argue 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, reducing the pressure on land resources.

  • 24 March: Second trialogue meetings between the European Parliament and the Council
  • April: Third trialogue meeting possible

European Parliament

  • EP's position on the directive relating to the quality of petrol and diesel fuels and amending Directive 2009/28/EC on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources

European Council

European Commission

  • Proposal for a directive amending Directive 98/70/EC relating to the quality of petrol and diesel fuels and amending Directive 2009/28/EC on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources

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