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  • Leaked Commission proposal recognises flaws in biofuels targets

    The Commission seems ready to accept that setting a general target for the use of biofuels in transport is not going to help reduce greenhouse gases. Its long-awaited proposal on indirect land-use change caused by growing biofuel crops was leaked earlier this month. Although still subject to change, the draft says the Commission believes biofuels should only be subsidised after 2020 ‘if they lead to substantial greenhouse gas savings … and are not produced from crops used for food and feed’.


    Brussels has been under pressure for several years to recognise that when crops are grown to make biofuels, use of land is indirectly affected, with the result that new land has to be found to replace the lost production, which in turn leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions. It is the syndrome that has become known as indirect land-use change (or ‘Iluc’). Its recognition of Iluc follows a succession of studies showing that greenhouse gases from producing many biofuels might be higher than those from fossil fuels; this is particularly the case for biodiesel.

    Biofuels have also been questioned due to their impact on rising food prices. This month the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation called for incentives to biofuel production to be reduced amid record-high grain prices because of low rainfall in the USA.

    Since 2009, the EU has had a target to have 10% of all transport fuels made up of renewable fuels by 2020, and biofuels were expected to make up a large share of this target. But according to the leaked Commission document, biofuels derived from food crops will now be limited to 5% of total EU transport fuels. As they already make up 4.5%, that suggests little more room for growth. The Commission says its wants non-land-derived biofuels, such as fuel made from household waste and algae, to make up the difference and is introducing a controversial system of double and quadruple accounting to make this possible.

    The draft envisages ending all public subsidies for biofuels produced from food and feed after 2020. T&E biofuels officer Nusa Urbancic said: ‘It’s important that the Commission appears to be finally addressing the problem and discouraging further expansion of unsustainable biofuels. It will be attacked by the biofuels industry for doing this, but it must stand firm, because even this proposal still fails to fundamentally clean up biofuels. It still does not count Iluc emissions in the Renewable Energy Directive, nor include any Iluc factors for biofuels produced from non-food crops. This is key to giving the right framework for the future development of the sector.’

    The draft law is expected to propose new Iluc emissions values for cereals, sugars and oilseeds, which will help calculate a fuel’s potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With a relatively high value expected for fuels derived from oilseeds, fuel producers will be discouraged to use biodiesel towards their decarbonisation target.

    Urbancic added: ‘Decarbonisation targets are set under the EU Fuel Quality Directive, which looks set to including Iluc factors, but Iluc will not feature in the Renewable Energy Directive. This suggests the potential for inconsistency between the EU’s two directives that are supposed to be encouraging cleaner energy. Unless this inconsistency is addressed, we may continue to subsidise biofuels that are worse for the climate than fossil fuels.’

    • A new report from the British charity Oxfam says land used to power European cars with biofuels for one year could produce enough wheat and maize to feed 127 million people. ‘The Hunger Grains’ says EU biofuels policy is pushing up global food prices and driving people off their land, resulting in deeper hunger and malnutrition in poor countries. It also says tax exemptions and incentives for biofuel production will end up costing every EU citizen €30 a year by 2020.