Vote on biofuels creates more uncertainty

The vote in the European Parliament’s plenary session in September put EU biofuels policy a step closer to being environmentally useful, but it will likely lead to delays in final agreement, which creates further uncertainty for the industry. MEPs voted to limit the use of land-based biofuels and to recognise the problem of indirect land-use change (ILUC) in future biofuels laws. But they failed to give a negotiating mandate, which would enable all institutions to conclude the agreement before the next year’s elections.

A target was agreed four years ago that 10% of all transport fuels sold in the EU in 2020 must come from renewable sources – the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). The RED effectively means a share of nearly 10% for biofuels - but most of this is expected to come from conventional biodiesel, which has been shown to lead to more greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuels it replaces. This is because of indirect land-use change: if Europe uses its vegetable oils for fuel instead of other purposes, it has to import more vegetable oil to make up for the shortfall. In many cases this extra import consists of palm oil, which is responsible for rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia.  Over the past years, intense discussions have taken place about including ILUC emissions into the EU’s biofuels policy so that it encourages only those biofuels that have lower emissions than conventional fuels.

This month’s European Parliament vote means ILUC emissions will be included in the Fuel Quality Directive in 2020, thereby sending a signal to oil companies to blend cleaner biofuels. Yet not only is this action seven years away, but the vote failed, by one vote, to give the French liberal rapporteur Corinne Lepage the mandate to start the negotiations between national governments, MEPs and the Commission.

Until now, the details of EU biofuels policy have been largely a discussion between campaigners and technocrats in Brussels, yet there is evidence that it is becoming more of a public issue. Petitions organised by several NGOs, including T&E, via Stopbadbiofuels.org attracted more than 280,000 signatures calling for a fix to the deforestation, land-grabbing and increased global food prices as a result of the EU biofuels policy. It was presented to MEPs just before the 11 September vote. As well as this, a recent poll in Germany, conducted by the renowned FORSA institute, found that 71% of Germans are against EU support for biofuels. The poll also showed that 78% of Germans oppose the fact that they are forced to fill up their cars with biofuels because of the German fuel-blending mandate.

Yet the outcome of the vote does little to set out a clear framework for the future of biofuels in Europe. MEPs voted to: limit at 6% the amount of biofuels that can be made from land-based crops that can count towards the RED; stipulate that 2.5% must come from biofuels made from non-food crops (so-called ‘second generation biofuels’); and require ILUC emissions to be included from 2020. But they failed to set any post-2020 targets, and a motion by the centre-right European People’s Party was passed, thereby delaying negotiations.

T&E’s clean fuels manager Nusa Urbancic said: ‘Investment in the best biofuels will only happen if the law favours them over bad ones, by accounting for emissions from indirect land-use change. By delaying this decision further, this vote creates uncertainty for the future of EU biofuels policy, its industry, and worst of all, the environment.

‘Until an agreement is reached, Europeans will have to keep paying for more emissions and more land clearance.’