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Europe Takes Another Step Toward Capping First-Generation Biofuels

In a hotly contested vote today, Europe’s Parliament voted to cap the amount of conventional or “first-generation” biofuels (those derived from food crops) that can be used in the EU’s transport sector.

In line with the Union’s climate targets, European member states will need to source 10 percent of their transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020. No more than 6 percent of that amount will be sourced from conventional biofuels if the cap bill is passed into law following the next legislative step, which would normally be a negotiation between the parliamentary rapporteur and the Council of Europe.

However, some MEPs have asked for a second reading of the bill. According to activist group Birdlife Europe, this means that “the ball is kicked into the long grass” and a resolution on the issue is unlikely before Parliamentary elections in May 2014.

The cap appears to have been a compromise between two separate proposals to amend 2009’s biofuels law, put forward by different factions. The parliamentary environment committee voted in July to impose a 5.5 percent cap on conventional biofuels, while a proposal from the industry committee asked for 6.5 percent. A higher cap would give the industry time to become profitable enough to invest in “second-generation” synthetic biofuel technologies, the committee said. The industry committee also asked that indirect land use change factors not be measured as part of the EU fuel quality directive.  

Indirect land use change (ILUC) refers to the unintended consequences incurred when land is changed from producing food crops to producing energy crops, such as additional carbon emissions and reduced food security. The environment committee had proposed that only biofuels with low ILUC factors should qualify to meet member states’ renewable fuel targets.

The method of calculating ILUC in order to include it in carbon accounting has been one of the most passionately argued aspects of the debate, with scientists from around the world weighing in on its validity. Many argue that the current ILUC calculation method is simply too unreliable to be used in making binding legislation.

Today’s vote affirmed that ILUC factors will be included in calculations toward the fuel quality directive, but not immediately: ILUC will be measured beginning in 2020. The vote in favour was a close 352 to 343.

Both industry representatives and anti-biofuel activist groups have expressed dismay at the vote. Raffaelo Garofalo, secretary general of the European Biodiesel Board, described the vote as an “unacceptable compromise” and a “really bad step” by the Parliament.

“The Parliament, by this vote, seems to think member states in Europe will come down from where they are in terms of biofuels and go back to lower than 6 percent, so it’s like a new target has been established,” he said. There have previously been no restrictions on how member states can fulfil the 10 percent target.  

“In Sweden, the Czech Republic, and even Germany and France they are already above 6 percent [in the use of conventional biofuels],” Garofalo said. “There are jobs, employment, an industrial economy. In 2009 Parliament said go to 10 percent; now they say dismantle it based on uncertain figures.”

Connie Hedegaard, the climate action commissioner, says the vote will not affect the EU’s renewable fuel targets. “These targets are there. We’re not changing them,” she said. “However, it’s also clear that we must take care that we get it right. To achieve these targets and do it wrongly – what have we gained then?”

Activist groups have also spoken against today's result. Trees Robijns, EU agriculture and bioenergy policy offer at Birdlife Europe, called the vote a “muddled compromise”.

“The Parliament did not take a clear stand on whether using land to feed cars rather than sustaining people and biodiversity is a major mistake. Today’s vote keeps the Parliament on the fence whether the EU should continue or end subsidising deforestation, hunger and land conflicts,” he said. Birdlife Europe was one of three groups behind the Stop Bad Biofuels Campaign, which was established in order to influence the vote.

And representatives of ActionAid, the food security activist group that has agitated for removing biofuel subsidies, called the vote “a great disappointment.” Nuria Molina, ActionAid’s director of policy and campaigns, said, “MEPs from across Europe turned their backs on the world’s poor, as well as their own constituents by voting for a reform of biofuels legislation that will continue to encourage food being used for fuel. A 6 percent cap on biofuels … would allow enough food to be burnt in Europe’s cars to feed more than 200 million people every year.”

“However,” she continued, “some progress was made as at least MEPs voted to acknowledge the role that biofuels have in causing hunger and contributing to climate change.”

UK trade body the Renewable Energy Association (REA) said the vote "will prolong biofuels policy instability” and “sends out mixed signals.” REA head of renewable transport Clare Wenner said, “Future investments are likely to remain on hold following today’s voting in Strasbourg, which introduces a whole new level of procedural complexity into the ILUC policy situation. The 6 percent overall cap is too tight and the REA continues to oppose the introduction of ILUC factors until there is convincing scientific evidence that biofuels should be singled out in this way.”  

Lead image: Plenary room of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France via Shutterstock

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