Progress at last in biofuels policy debate

European governments have reached a provisional agreement to amend the EU’s biofuels policy. The deal, struck last week by member states’ ambassadors, would cap the use of food-based biofuels that are eligible to count towards carbon reduction targets at 7% of transport fuel.

The Commission had proposed a 5% cap on biofuels produced from food crops in 2012. 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 due to ILUC emissions (indirect land-use change). Better biofuels are developing slowly because they are in general a more costly option and current policy does not reward them.
 
Last week’s deal also further waters down the reporting of emissions from indirect land-use change. ILUC happens when land previously used to grow crops for food is converted to grow crops for fuel. As food will have to be grown somewhere else because demand for food remains at least constant, this will result in an overall increase in emissions through clearing new land for farming.
 
By not including ILUC factors in the sustainability criteria, but only mandating their reporting, biofuels that emit more CO2 than conventional diesel or petrol can still count towards meeting the 10% target.
 
The agreement also requires countries to set an advanced biofuels sub-target with 0.5% as a so-called ‘reference value’.  However, governments can also set a lower target if they can explain why according to specified criteria.
 
While not reflecting the full social and environmental effects of biofuels, T&E and other NGOs believe the proposed new legislation would at least allow the policy debate to progress beyond the current stalemate.
 
Pietro Caloprisco, T&E’s clean fuels officer, said: ‘This is a weak deal that fails to address the issue at hand – emissions from indirect land-use change. But at least it is one small step in the right direction; better than nothing. Governments should rubberstamp it so that negotiations with the new Parliament can begin.’
 
Without reform, the penetration of biofuels will reach 8.6% of transport fuel by 2020, according to the National Renewable Energy Action Plans. This will be largely achieved with biofuels that are causing ILUC.
 
Energy ministers will vote on the agreement brokered by the Greek Presidency of the EU at a council meeting on June 13 before second-reading negotiations with the new Parliament can begin. It is hoped the changes to the biofuels law can be agreed by the end of the year.