Sustainable’ biofuels certification challenged by EU auditors

The EU’s certification system for the sustainability of biofuels is ‘not fully reliable’, the European Court of Auditors (ECA), the independent EU body in charge of scrutinising Europe’s public spending, has said. In a report in July it found that the certification system ‘did not adequately cover some important aspects necessary to ensure the sustainability of biofuels’  The majority of ‘sustainable’ EU biofuels are certified through European Commission-recognised voluntary schemes.

EU member states can only use biofuels that are certified as sustainable to reach their target, under the Renewable Energy Directive, of sourcing 10% of energy for transport from renewables by 2020.

However, the impact of indirect land-use change (ILUC) emissions on sustainability are not being considered, the ECA said. ILUC occurs when land previously used to grow crops for food is converted to grow crops for fuel, causing greater demand for land elsewhere and an overall increase in emissions.

T&E biofuels officer Jori Sihvonen said: ‘The auditors flagged that ILUC is not taken into account, so the current system is not properly evaluating the impacts of deforestation and land conversion on the sustainability of biofuels. The recently published Globiom study showed that ILUC is a significant source of emissions, as first-generation biofuels with ILUC included are, on average, 50% worse than the fossil alternative.”

Adequate checks are not being made to ensure biofuel production does not involve poor working conditions for farmers or child labour, the report also said. Meanwhile, the assessment criteria did not take into account some other socioeconomic impacts of biofuel production such as conflicts over land ownership, and health and safety risks. These are non-mandatory requirements in the Renewable Energy Directive, hence the Commission says they cannot be required for certification schemes.

Some three out of four schemes examined in the report did not properly verify that farmers are compliant with the Common Agricultural Policy’s environmental requirements, and were only relying on national authorities’ control, without having access to them. Furthermore, highly biodiverse grassland was not consistently protected until recently, as the Commission came up with a definition only in 2014. The Commission was also found lacking in its supervision of the voluntary schemes once they had been accepted. ‘The standards presented by the voluntary schemes as a basis for their recognition are not always applied in practice,’ the ECA said.

Jori Sihvonen concluded: ‘We all know that voluntary certification schemes are prone to freeriding. We need to ensure that in the coming Renewable Energy Directive all factors which have significant sustainability impacts are mandatory criteria. ’

The ECA’s report was published in late July, shortly before Commission proposed the ‘gradual’ phaseout of food-based biofuels.