The European Parliament’s environment committee voted last Thursday in favor of limiting the share of food-based biofuel used in cars and trucks to 5.5% of total consumption. It said the change would address concerns that biofuels of this kind are raising food prices and may not be as environmentally beneficial as originally hoped. However, it means that to meet its 2020 mandate that 10% of Europe’s transport energy comes from renewable sources, the bloc will be relying on a much-faster expansion of electric cars and commercially unproven biofuels made from nonfood crops.
The biofuels legislation now goes to the European Parliament for a vote in September. If approved, it will then be negotiated with the European Council, composed of leaders from EU countries, before it is formally adopted. Parliament often votes in line with a committee’s recommendation, but experts said the topic will remain fiercely contested over the next two months. Biofuels were lauded a decade ago as a way of emitting far-less carbon from cars and trucks than fossil fuels. But European Commission studies taking into account how land is used to grow the crops have concluded that there may be little or no benefit.
The proposed change to biofuels legislation comes as the value of turning food crops like rapeseed, palm oil and sugar cane into transport fuel has become increasingly controversial. For instance, large amounts of carbon can be released if native forests have to be cleared to make way for biofuel crops. Production of biofuels has also been linked to higher food prices, as they reduce the amount of land available for other food crops.
The green status of crop-based biofuels has been questioned by mounting evidence they increase demand for crops displacing food production into new areas and forcing forest clearance and draining of peatland – known as ILUC (indirect land-use change) – which can result in enough carbon emissions to cancel out any theoretical savings from biofuels.
An EU target to get 10 per cent of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020 was introduced in 2008, with most of it expected to come from biofuels made from sugar, cereals and oilseeds, but the new proposals would limit crop-based biofuels to contributing just 5.5 per cent of that total.
In a statement after the vote, EU vegetable oil industry body FEDIOL said: “The environment committee has taken a radical step in limiting and phasing out conventional biofuels, threatening the operations of FEDIOL members. The iLUC science remains unreliable and it is not expected that scientists will reach an agreement on the validity of a particular model in the short term”.
The EU wants to turn toward more advanced biofuels produced from nonfood crops or certain types of waste. But industry groups say that the new legislation will cause Europe to turn toward more fossil fuels, since these advanced biofuels aren’t yet ready for mass production. The new rules mean the 12 billion euros biofuels industries in these countries would have to reduce operations, according to industry groups, who add that runs counter to EU efforts to increase economic growth and reduce high unemployment.
According to the interview released by Royal DSM to Il Bioeconomista last November: “The proposal to limit the use of crop-based biofuels to 5%, and at the same time double or quadruple count several non-food-related alternatives, will eventually lead to a lower percentage of current fuel consumption being fulfilled with renewable alternatives. To us that is a disappointing direction, since we work from the belief that the transition from non-renewable to renewable feedstock is the first important objective. Regulation should help to increase the level of responsible thinking involved – not stop, or limit the demand”.