MEPs slam the brakes on the food-based biofuels bonanza

The European Parliament has once again voted to limit the support to biofuels made from food crops. If finally adopted, the use of biofuels from crops that could otherwise be used for food – including rapeseed, soy and sunflower – would be capped at 2017 national consumption levels and never higher than 7% of all transport fuels. Currently crop biofuels can be supported to a maximum of 7% of European transport’s energy needs.

However, MEPs also voted to no longer count biodiesel made from palm oil – the highest emitting biofuel in the market today – towards the renewables target in 2021. This means that European drivers will no longer be forced to burn palm oil in their cars and trucks. The vote was carried in the full plenary of the parliament, and a common position must now be reached with EU national governments and the European Commission.

T&E welcomed the decision to cap the use of food-based biofuels at current levels but said that MEPs missed the opportunity to support a more ambitious phase out. T&E’s clean fuels manager, Laura Buffet, said: ‘MEPs have sent a clear message to the biofuels industry that growth can only come from sustainable advanced fuels such as waste-based biofuels, not from food crops. This compromise redirects investments into the fuels of the future and eliminates palm oil biodiesel, the highest emitting biofuel. Unfortunately, the deal does little to clean up and phase out other high-emitting crop biofuels which will continue to receive support until 2030.’

The parliament approved an overall transport target of 12% containing a 10% blending mandate for so-called ‘advanced’ fuels, which includes renewable electricity, waste-based biofuels and ‘recycled carbon fuels’. But T&E warned that the new definition and list of advanced biofuels leave the door open to unsustainable feedstocks being incentivised under the Renewable Energy Directive.

Laura Buffet added: ‘This vote puts the EU fuels policy on a cleaner track, but it still leaves the door open to some unsustainable second-generation biofuels. We urge the European Commission and EU governments to tighten the definition and the list of advanced biofuels so as to only promote truly sustainable biofuels and avoid the same mistakes of the past.’

On the cap on biofuels for transport, EU energy ministers have already decided their stance. In December they agreed on sticking to the current limit at 7%– in opposition to the tighter limits on the use of food and feed crops proposed by the Commission (3.8% in 2030). This would also mean more use of food crops for biofuels, though member states have the option to set a lower limit if they want to.
Four out of five litres of biofuel consumed in Europe is biodiesel, while food-based biodiesel produces, on average, 80% more CO2 emissions than the fossil diesel it replaces when land-use change emissions (ILUC) are accounted for. Biodiesel made from palm oil is on average three times worse for the climate than fossil diesel, while that made from soy is two times worse. European rapeseed biodiesel produces 20% more emissions than diesel. Around half of EU production of crop biodiesel is based on imports, not crops grown by EU farmers.