EU finally agrees to stop bad biofuels after 2020

The European Parliament has given its final approval to a law capping the use of land-based biofuels in transport. The reform, which aims to be a check on the growing consumption of biofuels that increase carbon emissions compared to conventional diesel and petrol due to ILUC emissions, has been passed after seven years of public debate and tense negotiations between the European Commission, MEPs and EU member states.

MEPs agreed to limit at 7% the use of land-based biofuels that can count toward the 10% renewable energy target in transport by 2020. Member states are allowed to set lower national limits if they choose. The 7% limit will prevent emissions of up to 320 million tonnes of CO2 in Europe, which would otherwise have been caused by extra biofuels needed to meet the 10% target.

T&E, which ran a public campaign for biofuels reform, said the emissions avoided are equal to Poland’s total carbon emissions in 2012. The organisation believes that while the 7% cap is too high, the idea of a limit is in line with the Commission’s 2030 climate and energy communication that states first-generation biofuels should not be supported after 2020 due to indirect land-use change (ILUC) emissions.

It’s also the first time the EU has included in legislation the indirect emissions caused by growing biofuels, known as ILUC. This occurs when land previously used to grow crops for food is converted to grow crops for fuel, causing greater demand for land elsewhere and an overall increase in emissions.

Under the reform, oil companies and the Commission will need to report the full environmental impact of biofuels, including ILUC emissions. But lawmakers failed to have these emissions included in the carbon accounting, which would have allowed differentiation between biofuels and the shifting of subsidies toward more sustainable ones. This omission means the most damaging biofuels will still be allowed to count towards renewable targets. It will also slow the move to advanced biofuels that derive from biomass other than food crops.

Pietro Caloprisco, senior policy officer at T&E, said: ‘Maybe this is not the end of bad biofuels now. But this surely is the beginning of the end for pouring food in our tanks. The message is clear: political support for land-based biofuels in Europe post-2020 is over.’

The final version of the EU reform also sets an indicative 0.5% target for so-called second-generation biofuels, the contribution of which would count double towards the 10% renewable energy target for transport.

Elsewhere, Argentina’s biofuels exports have already been hit by legislative action; biodiesel being exported to the US dropped 36% in 2014 compared to the record-level year in 2013. It follows uncertainty about the Renewable Fuel Standard, the US federal program that requires transport fuel sold in America to contain a minimum volume of alternative fuels.

The EU reform also comes as new research by Princeton University, published in the journal Science, indicates government policies are relying on reductions in food consumption to generate greenhouse gas savings. Shrinking the amount of food that people and livestock eat decreases the amount of CO2 that they breathe out or excrete as waste. The reduction in food available for consumption, rather than any inherent fuel efficiency, drives the decline in carbon emissions in US and European models, the paper found.

‘Without reduced food consumption, each of the models would estimate that biofuels generate more emissions than gasoline,’ said lead author Timothy Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton.