• EU biofuels target is hindering real progress on fuel quality

    Editorial by Jos Dings T&E Director It may not seem like it to people outside the Brussels ‘microcosmos’, but the debate on the future of EU biofuels policy is reaching fever pitch. What makes the debate difficult to understand is its complexity – both technical and political – and the fact that the battleground is a split site.

    [mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]At the heart of the complication is the fact that there is not just one but two proposals on the table. One is the well-documented proposal on biofuels – it’s not called that, it’s a draft directive on renewable energy, but as it says 10% of transport fuels should be from renewable sources by 2020, and in practice this means almost exclusively biofuels, it has become known as the biofuels directive. It comes from the energy department of the Commission and will be dealt with by energy ministers and the energy experts in the European Parliament. The other proposal, from the environment department, is the much less-known fuel quality directive, proposed a year ago, that will be dealt with by environment ministers and experts. It says fuel suppliers should reduce the carbon footprint of transport fuels by 10% by 2020.

    T&E’s summarised position has always been that the former approach is wrong and the latter right, and a flurry of recent research points out why. If bio-energy crops are planted where there were previously other forms of agriculture, grassland, or forest, the odds are that the fuel produced will heat up the planet further rather than cooling it down. As a result, more and more experts and policy-makers are coming round to T&E’s view that the biofuel quantity target should be dropped in favour of a climate-based fuel policy. But there are those who favour biofuels for other than climate reasons – such as boosting the agriculture sector – and they don’t like the idea of dropping the biofuel target.

    The battle reached fever pitch last month when Coreper – the little-known French acronym for the ‘comité des réprésentants permanents’, the diplomats from the 27 member states – discussed whether sustainability criteria should be included in the fuel quality directive, the renewable energy directive, or both. Coreper said both, and decided to set up a working group to ensure criteria are ready by the summer so they can be included in voting on the fuel quality directive.

    In principle that is good news – it is a step towards using biofuels as part of a fuels policy based on tackling climate change. It also stops the fuel quality directive being slowed down by the need to wait for the renewables directive to finish its passage through the legislative process. But it also means people are now rushing to agree on such a complicated issue, and at the same time it gives other people an interest in slowing the fuel quality directive down.

    It would make so much more sense to ditch the biofuel quantity targets and take reasonable time to develop the sustainability standards to be included in the fuel quality directive. We are definitely getting closer to that objective – on 4 March all experts in a hearing of the European Parliament agreed that this is the right way forward. But I fear it might take a few more devastating reports on the dramatic impacts of wrongly executed biofuels policy before everyone is convinced.