Biofuels: European Parliament Votes to Cap Food-based Fuel Sources

19 September 2013

The European Parliament voted last week to cap the use of controversial biofuels made from edible agricultural crops, amid concerns over their environmental impact and effects on food prices.

The measure, which passed narrowly by a 356-327 margin, imposes a six percent cap on food-based biofuels to be blended in the EU transport fuel mix. Such biofuels, also known as first-generation biofuels, are based on agricultural crops such as rapeseed, sugar, and corn. These biofuels are then mixed with conventional transport fuel to create the final mix.

First-generation biofuels were heavily favoured during the EU’s original mandate to source 10 percent of ground transport fuel from renewable resources by 2020. However, the European Parliament has since revisited the legislation following pressure from environmental groups and new scientific research about biofuels’ potential impacts.

Environmental concerns

Last week’s vote indicates a change in European fuel policy goals, following the release of scientific evidence finding that some biofuels could be more environmentally damaging than conventional fossil fuels. Liberal French MEP Corinne Lepage, who led the parliamentary debate, praised the vote as being “in favour of correct accounting of greenhouse gas emissions.”

In addition to capping first-generation biofuels, parliamentarians have also called for a 2.5 percent target of so-called “advanced” non- food based biofuels - made from sources such as seaweed and agricultural waste products - to be added to the 2020 renewable fuel mix targets.

However, development agencies such as Oxfam have warned that the use of advanced biofuels is not likely to be feasible “‘within the next twenty years,” due to technical obstacles.

Lukewarm response

The six percent cap has been reluctantly greeted by both the biofuel industry and environmental groups as a compromise. The European Parliament’s environment committee had originally approved draft legal measures that would cap the food-based biofuel used in transport at 5.5 percent, but later loosened the cap to 6 percent in negotiations.

Both green groups and development agencies have said that the cap does not fully resolve environmental concerns or ethical questions regarding the use of foodstuffs as fuel. The plan, while “avoiding the worst case scenario… [is] still guilty of neglecting the needs of both the people and the planet,” Oxfam’s biofuel expert Marc Olivier Hermann commented following the vote.

Biofuel industry lobbies, such as the European Biodiesel Board, have in turn called for the EU to show consistency in its legislation, while asking for a higher biofuel cap, warning that any uncertainty in future biofuel regulation could pose difficulties for investors.

In addition to the restrictions on first-generation biofuels, EU lawmakers also signed off on legislation that requires energy companies to account for indirect greenhouse gas emissions created in the production of first-generation biofuels.

The new legislation would effectively eliminate the use of many first-generation biofuels - particularly palm, rapeseed, and soy oil - due to concerns over the carbon emissions released indirectly in their use. Some industry groups, however, argue that these claims are based on “uncertain science.”

Indirect land use change

According to the new legislation, the environmental impact of biofuel production will be measured by taking into account the effects of land use change, the environmental cost of extending farmland into forested areas, and the impact of propagating and harvesting first-generation biofuel crops.

These calculations will be aimed at determining the emissions impact of indirect land use changes, which have been previously unaccounted for in assessing the renewable nature of first-generation biofuels. Critics have argued that these indirect emissions effectively negate any advantages that biofuels have over fossil fuels.

Next steps

A vote to start negotiations with the European Council failed to pass during last week’s plenary in Strasbourg. EU member states will now have to determine a common position of their own; if it differs from that of EU lawmakers, Parliament will be required to hold a new vote on the proposal.

ICTSD reporting; “Food price fears push EU lawmakers to put a lid on biofuels growth,” REUTERS, 11 September 2013.

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