Last year was the one in which it became plain for everyone to see that transport had turned from being the grey sheep to the black sheep in Europe and the world’s efforts to improve the environment.
Further decarbonisation of transport through a shift to alternative fuels and electro-mobility forms a major part of the European Commission’s strategy for an ‘energy union’, unveiled last week. With transport being responsible for more than 30% of EU energy consumption and a quarter of emissions, the Commission said legislation on ‘decarbonising the transport sector, including an action plan on alternative fuels’ would be put forward in 2017.
EU governments last week agreed three modest targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, increase the share of renewable energy and improve energy efficiency by 2030. Environmental groups said the goals would not do enough to cut Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels and put it on track to meet its own 2050 climate pledges.
New research from the US has highlighted the dangers for the fight against climate change if the EU does nothing to reduce dependence on dirty oil such as Canadian tar sands. The US Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says if the EU Fuel Quality Directive is not comprehensively implemented, the amount of tar sands oil imported from Canada by 2020 will be 175 times greater than in 2012. This flood of tar sands would increase the carbon intensity of European fuels by 1.5%, making it more difficult and more expensive to meet the FQD’s 6% target by 2020.
Efforts to reduce the amount of food crops used to make transport fuels have suffered a setback with the defeat of a proposal that would have limited how much of the EU’s renewable fuels target could be made up from food-based biofuels. T&E said the proposal “was ugly, but the status quo is even worse”.
Hopes of having the full social and environmental effects of biofuels reflected in EU legislation before 2020 are fading after another round of negotiations led to further weakening of the European Commission’s proposal. With an agreement likely in the Council of Ministers next month, it looks as if the requirement for member states to report the effects of indirect land-use change (ILUC) will be further weakened. Also, food-based biofuels that are worse for climate change than traditional petrol and diesel will be allowed to increase by 50% from today’s levels and will not be capped under the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD).
Efforts to allow biofuels to make a meaningful contribution to fighting climate change have suffered a major setback. A vote by MEPs earlier this month – in somewhat farcical circumstances – effectively means there may be no agreement on encouraging good biofuels that reduce greenhouse gas emissions before the elections of the European Parliament next year. T&E has described the situation as ‘pitiful’ and ‘a victory for vested interests over innovators’.
Twenty-one Nobel prize winners have urged the EU to immediately implement the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) which would label tar sands as dirtier than other fuels. ‘The extraction of unconventional fuels – such as oil sands and oil shale – is having a particularly devastating impact on climate change,’ wrote the laureates in a letter to European commissioners and environment ministers earlier this month.
The vote in the European Parliament’s plenary session in September put EU biofuels policy a step closer to being environmentally useful, but it will likely lead to delays in final agreement, which creates further uncertainty for the industry. MEPs voted to limit the use of land-based biofuels and to recognise the problem of indirect land-use change (ILUC) in future biofuels laws. But they failed to give a negotiating mandate, which would enable all institutions to conclude the agreement before the next year’s elections.
The complex but crucial concept of indirect land-use change has finally been recognised by one section of the EU’s legislative process. Earlier this month, the European Parliament’s environment committee voted for full accounting of indirect emissions from biofuels production, as well as a 5.5% cap on land-based biofuels counting towards the EU’s renewable energy targets. Although the vote is a long way from being confirmed, T&E described it as ‘light at the end of the tunnel’.