What a good resolution to the biofuels reform would look like

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Nusa Urbancic of Transport & Environment.

The best way to promote advanced biofuels is to correctly account for indirect land use change (ILUC), writes Nusa Urbancic.

Nusa Urbancic is Energy Programme Manager at Transport & Environment (T&E).

This week, the proposal to reform EU biofuels policy is back on the European Parliament’s agenda for the second reading, starting with a discussion about MEP Nils Torvalds’ recommendation today, and a vote in the environment committee on 24 February.

It is very rare that the European institutions have to find a solution to a problem that they created, but this is one of them and the solution is badly needed after two and a half years of discussions. Here is a short guide for the MEPs on what the debate has been about and what a good resolution would look like. For more details about the history of the biofuels legislation, check out our new web documentary.

It all started more than a decade ago, when the EU introduced the first biofuels directive with a 5.75% indicative target for biofuels in transport by 2010. This target was later strengthened with the Renewable Energy Directive’s mandatory 10% target for renewables in transport by 2020. What to many seemed like a good idea at first (although most environmentalists and scientists were skeptical from the start), turned out to have significant unintended consequences as it became obvious that increased consumption of land-based biofuels leads to conversion of large areas of land, increases in food prices and large scale land-grabs in developing countries. As a result, many biofuels lead to negative or very small savings compared to fossil fuels they are supposed to replace.

This accumulation of evidence on the negative impact of the biofuels policy led to a proposal by the Commission in October 2012. Although not perfect, we have welcomed the Commission’s proposal because it made the first step to solving the problem with land-based biofuels by capping their consumption at 5%. Keeping the cap at 5% would prevent the release of around 800 million tonnes of additional GHG emissions, because of land conversion, while at the same time allowing the industry enough time to pay back their investments.

This Parliament should ensure that the cap is kept as low as possible, expanded to all land-based biofuels and also introduced in the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) because, disappointingly, the Commission’s cap only applies to one piece of legislation.

On the other hand, it was regrettable that the Commission astonishingly decided to drop indirect land-use change (ILUC) factors just a few days before the official publication of its proposal. Without this important parameter in the legislation, it is impossible to know which biofuels save CO2 emissions and which ones don’t. But the Parliament, which has always served as the guardian of ILUC science, introduced ILUC factors in the FQD in the first reading stage. This was a step in the right direction that should be maintained and further strengthened.

What about so-called advanced biofuels?

To an ignorant bystander, it may seem that this is what the whole debate is about – especially as the report enters the second reading, lots of policymakers are wondering how they can do more for advanced biofuels.

The response is: make sure that they are sustainable, so that we do not repeat the same mistake as with the first generation. Our view is that the best way to promote advanced biofuels is to correctly account for ILUC, which would boost biofuels that use much less land. Having just a sub-target without correct accounting and sustainability criteria would be counter-productive and could result in advanced biofuels only staying a niche technology that will still have to compete with cheaper first-generation biofuels on the basis of cost and not on the basis of climate performance.

It is very important to ensure that the fuels receiving extra incentives, regardless of the mechanism used (multiple counting, sub-targets), do not have adverse impacts. They should be subject to sustainability criteria, such as cascading use – where their use for socially preferable products is prioritised over their use for energy – and waste hierarchy, which aims to extract the maximum practical benefits from products and to generate the minimum amount of waste.

The research by the European Climate Foundation shows that even with ambitious sustainability criteria there is significant potential out there for biofuels from waste and residues. These can also lead to a lot of jobs in rural Europe – jobs that you could not get by just further expanding first-generation biofuels which, in one way or another, means importing lots of feedstocks (palm, soy and corn) from abroad.

After more than two and a half years of debate and more than a decade of erratic policy, it is time to finally put the current biofuels policy out of its misery and finalise the reform. At the same time, all the eyes have moved beyond 2020 towards the 2030 policy.

On this one, we must heed the wise words of George Bernard Shaw: “Success does not consist in never making mistakes but in never making the same one a second time.” It is time to move away from land-based biofuels towards smarter mobility solutions: electrification of transport seems to be a logical solution that holds a promise of better mobility patterns and fuels that have the potential to be truly domestic and sustainable.


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