Parliament places early phase-out of vegetable oil biofuels firmly on the agenda

EU governments and MEPs are under pressure to consider phasing out the use of vegetable oils for biofuels by as early as 2020 after the European Parliament backed the move in a non-binding resolution this week. The Council and Parliament are currently drafting their common positions on reform of the Renewable Energy Directive, which will decide Europe’s biofuels policy up to 2030.

The resolution was passed with a huge majority of MEPs – only 20 voted against – showing there is broad political support for an end to incentives for biofuels such as palm oil, soy and rapeseed, which cause deforestation and peatland drainage. Parliamentarians will revisit the issue in the coming months when proposing amendments to the European Commission’s draft new RED.

T&E’s biofuels officer Cristina Mestre said: ‘We welcome the call for a phase-out by the European Parliament because the problem is not only palm oil. Vegetable oils are interchangeable, so if we take palm oil out of European cars and trucks it’ll be replaced by other equally bad crop biodiesel feedstocks. The long-term solution to the EU biofuels policy is to phase out crop-based biofuels and leave room for actual sustainable fuel solutions, such as waste and residues and renewable electricity.’

Biodiesel from virgin vegetable oil has been a source of increasing concern since data from the European Commission’s own study revealed that it leads to around 80% higher emissions on average than the fossil diesel it replaces. These figures reflect crop biodiesel’s lifecycle emissions by 2020, which include land-use change emissions (ILUC). ILUC occurs when new or existing cropland is used for biofuel production thus displacing the current use of that land. As ILUC leads to peatland drainage and deforestation in order to make lands available for crops, it opens carbon sinks. In Europe biodiesel was the most popular biofuel in 2015, with a 80% market share.

With three times the emissions of fossil diesel, palm oil-based diesel has the highest greenhouse gas emissions of all the sources of biofuel for transport. Cars and trucks are the top consumers of palm oil in Europe, according to figures from industry analyst OILWORLD. In 2015, 46% of all the palm oil used in Europe ended up in the tanks of cars and trucks. Transport has therefore driven extra demand for palm oil, mainly in Southeast Asia but also in Latin America and Africa.

Meanwhile, the share of renewable energy that will be filled by bioenergy in 2030 has been overestimated by the Commission, a new independent study has found. It said the Commission is underestimating a significant drop in the cost of renewables such as wind and solar energy. T&E and BirdLife Europe, which commissioned the study, said that the result of the Commission using old price data is to make renewable energy appear to be more expensive than it actually is.

The fear is that unless the Commission’s assumptions are corrected, lawmakers might end up being less ambitious in target setting for renewable energy. This issue will also be tackled in the reform of the RED.

If accurate costs for renewable energy were used, the share of bioenergy, such as wood pellets, wastes and residues, would shrink from 60% in 2014 to 46% in 2030 in the EU, the study finds. This indicates that the Commission’s forecast of 63% of renewables from bioenergy is a gross overestimation. Also, if a more cost-effective mix of renewable energy were deployed, wind energy would more than double to about 20% of renewables while solar would increase fivefold to about 20%.

T&E’s biofuels officer, Jori Sihvonen, said: ‘The Commission thinks that almost two-thirds of renewables will come from bioenergy in different forms, but this is way off and does not take into account the sharp fall of prices in wind and solar. Lawmakers should use the latest prices in order to make an informed choice on the level of ambition when setting renewables targets.’