24 Jul 2013   |   News

MEPs follow Commission backtrack on biofuels

Crop-based biofuels, once the poster child of EU environmental policy, are no longer to be the main vehicle for reaching clean transport targets. While environmentalists welcome investment in advanced biofuels and renewable energy, industry craves greater regulatory certainty

MEPs from the European Parliament's environment committee voted to limit the contribution biofuels coming from crops such as sugar and rapeseed can make to EU targets for renewable transport fuels. New rules, which remain to be endorsed by the Parliament as a whole, will also require companies to measure the indirect emissions caused by such fuels.

“This vote aligns EU policy with the most robust science available today,” said the pressure group Transport & Environment, “More importantly, it will promote the production of genuinely emissions-reducing transport fuels such as advanced biofuels and renewable electricity for electric vehicles.”

Meeting targets with biofuels

In 2008, the EU introduced a target for ten per cent of transport fuels to come from renewable sources by 2020, and called for a six per cent reduction in carbon emissions from this source. Biofuels were a favoured method of achieving this, and a recent study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development showed that public funding for biofuels in Europe amounted to €10 billion in 2011.

However, the production of biofuel from crops has been linked to a rise in food prices. The conversion of land for biofuel production has also displaced food production into other areas, a process known as indirect land-use change (ILUC). This can lead to forest and wetland destruction and higher emissions than with conventional fuels.

Responding to a backlash against biofuels, the Commission last year proposed to cap the contribution from first-generation biofuels, produced from crops that are also used as food or animal feed, to half of the ten per cent renewable fuel target. This figure was subsequently raised to 5.5 per cent by MEPs.

“The cap on first generation biofuels is needed, but not in an indiscriminate way as the Commission proposed,” said Corinne Lepage, French MEP responsible for steering the proposal through the Parliament. In order to distinguish between what are now seen as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ biofuels, the Committee voted that from 2020 industry will be required to use ILUC factors to calculate the indirect emissions of fuels.

Promoting green innovation

MEPs also voted for extra incentives to promote second-generation biofuels made from waste or agricultural residues, which are to account for two per cent or more of consumption by 2020.

"This vote will pave the way for truly sustainable transport fuels, which actually reduce emissions, as of 2020," said Nuša Urbančič, Clean Fuels Manager at Transport & Environment.

The Committee also voted for electricity produced from renewable sources to account for two per cent of total transport energy consumption by 2020 in a move designed to boost electric vehicles.

Certainty for investors

The vote had a frosty reception from industry, where investment in biofuels was based on the sector’s bright future as the cornerstone of EU policy. “We call on politicians to face up to their responsibilities and respect the undertakings made in a European Directive that only dates from 2009,” said Jean-Philippe Puig, CEO of biofuel producer Sofiprotéol. “The direction being taken by the debate on biofuels will deter industry from investing because of the lack of a stable regulatory environment in Europe,” he said.

Olivier Macé, Head of Strategy and External Affairs at BP Biofuels said, “Any outcome using Indirect Land Use change factors as a regulatory mechanism would be based on disputed modelling and immature science, which is inappropriate and potentially very damaging to our industry.”

Lepage conceded the industry needs time to adapt, and said she will propose a compromise when the draft goes to vote in Parliament in the autumn.

Parliament is due to vote on the proposals on 10 September. Approval from national governments, which are deeply divided on the issue, is also necessary.

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