Ministers still reluctant to accept full impact of biofuels

The battle to get the full environmental impact of biofuels recognised in EU legislation is still slow to make progress. Despite a letter from eight NGOs and a study from the Netherlands, EU energy ministers, in a meeting last month, did not even support the Commission’s proposed 5% cap on ‘first generation’ biofuels. At the same time, two new studies from the EU’s Joint Research Centre confirm that biofuels with high indirect land-use change emissions will cause more greenhouse gas emissions than petrol and diesel.

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The latest research is all part of the battle for the indirect consequences of using agricultural land to grow crops for biofuels – known as indirect land-use change, or ILUC – to be taken into account in assessing which biofuels qualify for EU funding and which can count towards a country’s renewable energy obligation. Without the indirect effects of biofuels, most existing biofuels on the EU market – sometimes known as ‘first generation’ biofuels – are seen to be making a contribution to fighting climate change, but once the indirect effects of growing crops for biofuels on agricultural land are factored in, several types of biofuels produced from agricultural or energy crops cause more climate problems than they solve.

T&E and seven other transnational NGOs wrote to energy ministers ahead of their 22 February meeting, asking them to properly address indirect land-use change; this is both to ensure biofuels contribute to the battle against climate change, and to stop rises in the price of food. But many ministers felt the Commission’s latest proposal, which seeks to limit land-based biofuels to 5% of total fuels on the EU market, which is close to today’s levels, was too harsh on existing biofuels. The EU energy commissioner Günther Oettinger said he was ‘flexible’ and might be happy with 6% or 7%.

Last month, T&E and three other environmental NGOs published a study they had commissioned from the Dutch consultancy CE Delft, entitled Biofuels on the Dutch market – ranking oil companies in the Netherlands. It suggests that a requirement to publicly report on the sustainability performance of the biofuels that oil companies sell in the market makes a big difference when it comes to overall greenhouse gas emissions. Only the Dutch and British currently oblige fuel suppliers that these reports are available to the public, and the biofuels sold in the Netherlands score, on average, very high on sustainability criteria.

The study compares the environmental performance of the various biofuels sold by different oil companies in the Netherlands. It shows that all producers selling biofuels to the Dutch market mostly use biodiesel produced from waste, which resulted in reduced greenhouse gas emissions compared with petrol and diesel. The only exception is Esso; Esso’s main biofuel is biodiesel from rapeseed, palm oil or soybean, all crops with high impact resulting from indirect changes to use of land. This resulted in Esso’s biofuels being worse for the climate than fossil fuels.

At the same time, the EU’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) presented two studies of land-use change that has happened as a result of crops for making biofuels being grown on agricultural land. The studies, also conducted in the Netherlands, are based on analysis of a 10-year period and confirm predictions about future land-use change. While biofuels producers are still trying to cast doubt on the science, the JRC’s leading alternative fuels scientist, Luisa Marelli, told MEPs: ‘ILUC is a reality. All of the models and studies now show there is an ILUC impact and that this is above zero [emissions].’

T&E’s programme manager for fuels Nusa Urbancic said: ‘The latest research from the JRC doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t know, but it further emphasises the fact that the science is robust enough to include indirect emissions from biofuels in the sustainability criteria. What’s new from the Dutch study is that it shows how ILUC can affect performance of an individual company, but also how transparency can create an incentive for low-impact biofuels. When fuel providers know the public can see where their biofuels are coming from, they appear to be more careful that their biofuels feedstocks are not harming the climate.’

Environment ministers will discuss biofuels later this month. Urbancic added: ‘There is simply no excuse, other than blatant self-interest, for the biofuels industry to deny the scientific proof that certain biofuels cause more problems than they solve. Ministers should not fall for industry’s poor-quality lines of argument when they discuss the badly needed reform of EU biofuels legislation.’