Future of biofuels in Europe hangs on MEPs’ vote

The continued use of high-emitting biofuels to power Europe’s cars and trucks is up for decision in the European Parliament next week. In deciding the Parliament’s position on reform of the Renewable Energy Directive, MEPs will be asked whether European drivers should be obliged to burn massive quantities of food crops in their fuel tanks until 2030.

Last month EU energy ministers called for the reintroduction of a binding target for renewable energy in transport requiring member states to reach 14% by 2030. Such a target would be reached through mandates imposed on fuel suppliers and half could be filled using food and feed-based biofuels.

This is despite food-based biodiesel producing, on average, 80% more CO2 emissions than the fossil diesel it replaces when land-use change emissions (ILUC) are accounted for. Biodiesel made from soy is two times worse for the climate than fossil diesel. European rapeseed biodiesel produces 20% more emissions than diesel. Four out of five litres of biofuel consumed in Europe is biodiesel.

Ministers also called for the removal of the tighter limits on the use of food and feed crops proposed by the Commission. Currently such crops are capped at 7 percentage points of the existing renewables target for transport (10%) while the Commission wants the cap lowered to 3.8% percentage points in 2030. Ministers also seek to change the definition of food and feed crops so that European grown crops like rapeseed would be exempt from this limit. This would result in more food crops being used for biofuels. Member states have the option to set a lower limit if they want to, and, in doing so, they can also reduce accordingly the overall 14% transport target.

T&E criticised the ministers’ weakening of the cap on food and feed crops. Clean fuels manager, Laura Buffet, said: ‘EU governments have not learned from past mistakes on biofuels. Ignoring all the scientific evidence that shows most crop biofuels in Europe increase emissions and drive deforestation, EU energy ministers have decided to keep promoting these harmful biofuels for another decade.’

However, the ministers want to boost support for the use of renewable electricity in transport by adopting a multiplier of 5 for renewable electricity used in road vehicles.

Meanwhile, thousands of Europeans are seeking to influence the Parliament’s vote on biofuels reform next week through an online action, Stop Bad Bioenergy. The petition says the supposed biofuels cure for transport’s fossil fuels addiction is worse than the disease.

The Parliament is already under pressure to accept its environment committee’s changes to the Commission proposal by demanding a phase-out of the use of biofuels made from food crops by 2030. T&E welcomed the committee’s support for ending the use of high-emitting biodiesel from palm oil, rapeseed and soy in European cars. However, the industry committee’s call for the reinstatement of a ‘renewable’ energy target for transport in 2030 would continue subsidising the use of high-emitting, food-based biofuels.

Lawmakers are also set to vote on a complete phase-out of EU support to palm oil biodiesel by 2021. The amendment is reported to have strong support across the political groups. Of all biodiesel, palm oil is the cheapest and has the highest greenhouse gas emissions – three times worse for the climate than fossil diesel. This is because palm expansion drives deforestation and peatland drainage, mainly in Southeast Asia but also in Latin America and Africa. Palm-oil biodiesel accounted for 32% of biodiesel burned in Europe last year.

T&E said that such a phase-out would be a good first step but phasing out support for palm oil alone is not going to solve European transport’s addiction to crop biofuels. Laura Buffet said: ‘Removing palm from the equation takes away the dirtiest of all biodiesels, but other high-emitting food and feed-based biofuels will replace it. We urge members of the European Parliament to reject any new crop biofuels target in transport and support a phase out of all food-based biofuels in 2030. EU policy should focus on supporting truly sustainable alternatives for transport such as renewable electricity and sustainable advanced waste-based fuels.’