New EU biofuel sustainability rules 'missing the point' say green groups

The European Commission’s communication on biofuel sustainability (1), published today, will do precious little to address the impacts on land and emissions from crop-derived fuels used in transport, according to BirdLife International, ClientEarth, the European Environmental Bureau and Transport & Environment. The four environmental groups remain deeply concerned about the Commission’s failure to address the critical issue of expansion of agricultural land into environmentally sensitive areas when food production is displaced by fuel crops, a process known as indirect land use change (ILUC).

[mailchimp_signup][/mailchimp_signup]“As long as the Commission is unwilling to deal with the issue of indirect land use change, all attempts by the EU to brand biofuels as sustainable will be misleading, counterproductive and destined for failure” said Nusa Urbancic, of Transport & Environment.

On 8 March, the coalition of environmental organisations sued the European Commission for failing to release several key studies, documents and emails that reveal the extent of the impact of ILUC (2).  The case is being dealt with by the General Court of the EU, the Union’s second-highest court of appeal (previously known as the Court of First Instance). The Commission has until 4 July to respond.

Tim Grabiel, lead lawyer on the ClientEarth v. Commission case, said: “It is completely inappropriate for European bureaucrats to hide the science on their misguided biofuel policies. The Commission must take leadership here, admitting its biofuel mistake and taking steps to correct it. It is unacceptable that we must sue the Commission to make it engage transparently with its citizens on biofuels’ environmental impacts.”

According to its own figures, the Commission is currently withholding about 140 documents, although the groups suspect that number is much higher.  The environmental groups have urged their public release in the interests of transparency and public participation in policymaking, rights enshrined in European law. 

The communication published today leaves a number of additional issues unresolved. In particular, the definition of what is ‘waste’ material in the context of collection of biomass for fuel use and the issue of so-called ‘grandfathering’ whereby any biofuel production facility already installed would be exempted from aspects of sustainability rules.

Pieter de Pous from the EEB said: “Let there be no mistake, with this communication the Commission won’t be able to ensure that biofuels are actually green. A lot more needs to be done, starting with facing up to the reality of indirect effects but also tightening the exemptions for existing installations.”

An earlier draft of today’s communication defined palm oil plantations as forests, a move criticised by the UK, Netherlands and Denmark governments as well as by environmental NGO’s.  That classification was removed from the final version. 

“While it is commendable that the Commission has dropped the shameful attempt to pass palm plantations for forests, this communication leaves unchanged the fact that the EU is subsidising massive forest destruction through its bio-energy policies”, said Ariel Brunner, head of EU Policy at BirdLife International.

(1) The communication on the implementation of sustainability criteria for biofuels relate to the Renewable Energy and Fuel Quality Directives. The sustainability criteria were adopted by the European Parliament and Council in December 2008, but many issues still had to be clarified in terms of implementation. The purpose of this communication is to provide guidance to Member States and companies on how to implement the sustainability criteria. The document itself is not legally binding, but very important because it represents the Commission’s view on the implementation of sustainability criteria. 


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Nico Muzi
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