Thursday

19th Sep 2019

European Parliament capitulates on biofuel deal

The policy tennis match between biofuels supporters and opponents in the European Union has all but drawn to a close, with the backers of the controversial fuel source securing almost complete victory.

Representatives of EU members states, the European Parliament and the European Commission this week came to a back-room agreement that supports the sourcing of 10 percent of the EU's road transport fuel from renewable forms of energy by 2020 - the same target figure originally proposed by the EU executive in January of this year.

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  • Biofuels, such as palm oil in indonesia, have been the focus of a battle royale in Brussels over the past year (Photo: Friends of the Earth)

When the proposal was first unveiled, most policymakers assumed that biofuels would make up all or most of the 10 percent figure.

But in the wake of reports from the World Bank through to the UN saying that in many cases biofuels produced more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels and threatened global food supplies, EU lawmakers were under pressure to slim down or abandon the biofuels element of the 10 percent renewable transport fuel target.

In particular, scientists warned that "indirect land-use change" - the creation of new farmland on previous grassland or forest to compensate for farmland lost to biofuels - would put the value of even the "cleanest" biofuels in doubt.

While many in the European Parliament had been convinced of the dangers, the commission and member states remained adamant that the target go ahead largely unchanged.

Under this week's tri-partite agreement, consideration of problems caused by indirect land-use change has been completely junked, apart from a caveat that the European Commission will come up with a report by 2010 on how to minimise this process.

But since the European Commission has in recent months repeatedly denied that indirect land-use change occurs, it is unlikely to develop strong recommendations to counter the problem.

According to the agreement, those biofuels that do not come from food sources - so-called second generation biofuels - will be able to be counted twice towards the 10 percent target, but otherwise there is no move to prevent this threat to food supplies.

Binding sub-targets for other forms of renewable transport such as electric cars or clean-energy trains which had been supported by the parliament have also been abandoned, with member states now free to choose whether to count these toward the overall 10 percent target.

Electric cars can be counted at two and a half times their real contribution towards the target.

The parliament's key negotiator, Luxembourgeois Green MEP Claude Turmes, said that according to his calculations, this means that electric cars and trains will provide three percent of the overall EU renewable transport fuels goal.

But environmentalists were sceptical of Mr Turmes' figures, saying that while the language would provide a general incentive to electrify railways, the negotiator's maths was optimistic.

Greenhouse gas savings

When proposing the bill, the commission had initially suggested that in order to be accepted under the 10 percent target, biofuels had to achieve a 35 percent savings in greenhouse gas emissions on what traditional fossil fuels would have emitted.

This standard was low enough that a range of biofuels produced in Europe could meet it. However, the industry committee of the parliament in September more strictly demanded that biofuels achieve a 45 percent savings on fossil fuels immediately, and a 60 percent savings by 2015.

At 45 percent, while fuels such as ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane would easily meet such sustainability critieria, a number of European biofuels, such as sugar beet ethanol, would not have met the cut-off.

Under the tripartite compromise, negotiators split the difference to arrive at a cut-off of 50 percent savings by 2017, subject to a review to see if there is sufficient material - or feedstock - to meet this goal.

Yet here too the commission had adjusted its original rules for calculating what exactly is the greenhouse gas impact of different biofuels, and sugar beet ethanol is in the clear once again.

The data the commission used to calculate the new values of different biofuels comes from the car and oil industry.

Green campaigners dejected

Green campaigners and development NGOs, who have committed much energy this year to trying to defeat the proposal are shocked that they have lost on virtually every aspect of the agreement.

"The parliament gave in on almost everything," said Nusa Urbancic, a policy officer with Transport and Environment, a European clean transit promoter.

"This is an utter abandonment of the precautionary principle."

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