Biofuels’ indirect emissions finally recognised by MEPs

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’.

In 2008, the EU set itself a target of getting 10% of all transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020 as part of its carbon-reduction efforts. The expectation was that most of this 10% would be from biofuels, but evidence has grown that some first generation biofuels require large areas of land and can end up emitting more greenhouse gases than conventional fuels. A big part of this has been indirect land-use change (ILUC), where land previously used to grow food crops is converted for fuel crops, leading to other land needing to be cleared for food and thereby causing more emissions.

Despite a growing body of evidence showing that indirect emissions were undermining the whole objective of EU biofuels legislation, the Commission has been very slow to accept the science. So when MEPs on the environment committee voted to require fuel producers to fully account for their indirect emissions, they were effectively saying the full environmental impact of any biofuel must be considered for it to be eligible for public financial support.

T&E’s clean fuels manager Nusa Urbancic said: ‘It is encouraging to see MEPs in charge of protecting our environment finally addressing the elephant in the room by introducing indirect emissions into the EU’s biofuels policy. This vote is an important step towards truly sustainable transport fuels which genuinely reduce emissions. The mechanics of this issue are complicated and ILUC takes a lot of explaining, but the basis of the problem is very simple – the EU should not be subsidising any fuels that do not reduce CO2 emissions. Indirect emissions are an essential part of this, as countless scientific studies have shown.’

The next step is for the full European Parliament to vote on the issue in September. The environment committee is just one of seven committees who have voted on the Commission’s proposed changes to the 2008 biofuels directive, and some of the others have been critical of it. MEPs on the energy committee voted to increase the cap to 6.5% and to delete even reporting of indirect emissions. Although the environment committee is the ‘lead’ committee on this issue, other committees can influence the vote in the plenary, and are likely to seek to do so.

Reporting of the committee’s vote has focused on its decision to support a 5.5% limit on land-based biofuels being allowed to count towards the targets (as opposed to fuels from waste and agricultural residues, known as advanced biofuels). With biofuels already claiming a 4.7% share of the EU transport fuels market, this would effectively prevent further expansion of land-based fuels.

Urbancic added: ‘It is vital that the full Parliament upholds the science-based decision made by the environment committee. We know a compromise will be difficult to find, but what is important is that ILUC factors become a mandatory part of future EU biofuels policy. As long as you include indirect emissions in the sustainability criteria, unsustainable biofuels simply won’t qualify for meeting the targets and therefore won’t receive some of the €10 billion a year in financial support from cash-strapped governments and citizens. Given that some biofuels increase rather than reduce greenhouse gases due to ILUC, there ought to be a massive incentive for the Parliament to include indirect emissions.’