EU clinging to ‘false euphoria’ about biofuels

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).

Under current EU legislation, 10% of all transport fuels on the market in 2020 must come from renewable energy, and fuel suppliers must reduce the carbon intensity of their fuels by 6% by 2020 compared with 2010. Both laws currently stimulate biofuels, but in the past few years it has become clear that most of today’s biofuels emit more greenhouse gases than conventional petrol and diesel. Better biofuels are developing slowly because they are in general a more costly option and current policy does not reward them.
 
Ministers are bound to weaken a proposal to limit the amount of non-advanced biofuels to 5%. The latest negotiations suggest such fuels can make up 7% of the target set by the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), while there will be no cap on those that can be used to meet the 6% decarbonisation target set by the FQD. Meanwhile, the Parliament’s amendment to require advanced biofuels to make up 2.5% of fuels has been dropped in favour of allowing these advanced biofuels to be double counted. This effectively waters down the overall target for renewable energy.
 
The method for assessing ILUC has also been watered down. Environmental groups were angry when the Commission proposed only to require that member states monitor ILUC, not to use it to determine which biofuels could qualify for subsidies. Now it appears that only the Commission, not Member States, will have to report on ILUC factors and the range of uncertainty, which means biofuels will look environmentally beneficial at national level because their indirect effects will not be listed.
 
Talks at member-state level have seen France and others push for a weakening of the importance attached to ILUC. The UK has pushed for multipliers for advanced biofuels in order to water down the overall target for renewables. 
 
T&E clean fuels manager Nusa Urbancic said: ‘What we are seeing is how difficult it is to escape from the false euphoria about biofuels. A decade ago, Europe got the idea into its head that biofuels would be great for tackling greenhouse gas emissions from transport, and help agriculture and the economy at the same time. But it overlooked the indirect effects of growing crops for fuel, and now it has invested so much in bad biofuels that member states prefer to stick their heads in the sand. This resistance to reform is also hampering alternative fuels that really will help the climate.’
 
Even if an agreement can be reached at the Council of Ministers in December, there may not be enough time for the biofuels legislation to be passed before European Parliament elections in May. This is proving very problematic for advanced biofuels producers, who are left without any investment certainty.