MEPs retaliate against EU countries on biofuels draft law

In 2012, the Commission made an unexplained U-turn in its biofuel policy. [The Open University/Flickr]

The European Parliament has resisted pressure from member states to water down the draft law on biofuels after five-hour long negotiations yesterday afternoon (25 March).

A second trilogue meeting between the co-legislators ended without a compromise text on limiting the use of food-based biofuels. The European Parliament’s Rapporteur on Indirect Land-Use Change (ILUC), MEP Nils Torvalds (ALDE) refused the Council’s proposal to make a number of provisions weaker, or optional.

Biofuel is an alternative to fossil fuel that pollutes less. The increased use of biofuels over the years has caused deforestation, high food prices, and increased carbon emissions which harm the environment, the Commission and environmental groups has said. 

“Nils Torvalds has so far resisted pressure from the Council to further expand biofuels that everyone knows are harming forests, disrupting food supplies, and worsening climate change,” Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe said. 

“MEPs and national governments must now put to bed the EU’s biofuels debacle,” said Blake.

The draft law, proposed by the Commission in 2012, is supposed to limit the use of conventional biofuels and contribute to the EU’s transport targets of 10% renewable energy by 2020.

MEPs and EU countries are trying to broker a deal on the biofuels law that will curb those problems. 

Yesterday’s negotiations highlighted the divide between the Parliament and the Council.

>> Read: EU countries dilute draft law capping food-based biofuels


A number of controversial issues remain on the negotiation table.

Co-legislators disagree on how much biofuel can be derived from food crops. While MEPs ask for a 6% cap, which is backed by green campaigners, the Council is pushing for a 7% cap.

There is also disagreement over the best way of calculating indirect land use change (ILUC) emissions. ILUC is the unintended consequence of releasing more carbon emissions after turning forests into agricultural land in response to the increased global demand for biofuels.

MEPs want these emissions included in the carbon accounting, a method calculating greenhouse gas emissions, in order to identify the most polluting biofuels. This will send a strong market signal to the oil companies to shift away from biofuels with high-ILUC, such as biodiesel. But countries like Poland and France are against that because biofuels with high-ILUC can still get subsidies and financial support and be counted towards renewable targets.

Binding targets on advanced biofuels, derived from biomass other than food crops, is another cause of disagreement. The Council wants an optional target of 0.5%, while the Parliament asks for an obligatory target of 1.5%. MEPs want to hasten the shirft to advanced biofuels becuase they are less polluting.

“It is a shame that the goal of more ambitious and legally binding targets for advanced biofuels is blocked by the Council,” said Jytte Guteland, a Socialist member of the European Parliament’s environment committee.

“In order to stimulate fully renewable advanced technologies for biofuels, and make the transport sector more sustainable, we need technological progress. And nothing will happen if we don’t get targets that are legally binding to member states,” she said.

Council divided

The Council hoped to strike a compromise yesterday night, but the Parliament decided to stand by its position, according to a source.

It also emerged that the Council is divided over the biofuels law. Nine countries, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, the UK, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Slovenia, are willing to have a more ambitious law. Should they put pressure on other member states, a compromise could be made with the Parliament. 

The co-legislators will have a third trilogue meeting on 14 April. If an agreement can’t be made, the lawmakers will form a special conciliation committee to seek a settlement. If that fails, the law will be declared void.  

Robert Wright, Secretary General of ePURE (the European renewable ethanol industry), said:

"It's disappointing that no agreement has yet been reached. Our industry seeks a balanced closure of this dossier in order to provide investors with some certainty. We would like to see an agreement on simple, practical measures to incentivise ILUC mitigation and the use of the best performing biofuels, such as ethanol from conventional and advanced feedstocks. The absence of an agreement would be bad for the economy and for Europe’s renewables and climate ambitions."

Chris Malins, from the International Council on Clean Transportationsaid:

"In the absence of institutional agreement on ILUC factors, the introduction of specific rules to promote ethanol, specifically through the Parliament's proposed 6.5% ethanol target, could be the best regulatory approach to ensure that Europe minimises ILUC and maximises the GHG savings from its biofuels policy."

"If member state policy is able to simultaneously maximize the contribution of first generation ethanol and biodiesel from used cooking oil, that should minimize the ILUC emissions and maximize the carbon savings that can be delivered by 2020. Provided it would be compatible with the vehicle fleet and fuelling infrastructure, a specific mandate for the fraction of ethanol in petrol could be one way to deliver that outcome – a 6.5% target by energy has been suggested."

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.

  • 25 March by 14h00: EP to send revised text to Presidency
  • 25 March: debriefing at afternoon session of Coreper by the Presidency
  • 14 April: Third trilogue meeting

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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