Biofuels are one form of bioenergy, liquid fuel produced from biomass and used for transport. Current biofuels are by far the least efficient form of bioenergy and they require huge amounts of land for feedstock cultivation. Some biofuels are made of waste streams and have a much better environmental record.
The European renewable target for transport (10% of renewables in the transport sector by 2020) is driving mainly biofuels (projections up to 8.3% of European transport energy in 2020) with serious doubts about their sustainability both in terms of environment externalities and GHG savings. This 10% target was not meant to only drive first generation biofuels, but also other renewables in the transport sector such as renewable electricity, biofuels from waste and residues, etc.
Biofuels can have serious impacts on biodiversity and the environment if they are planted within natural habitats such as forests or high biodiverse grasslands. They can also cause damage if the demand for crops used for biofuels is leading the agricultural intensification (see agriculture section). The third impact is what is called: Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC), basically when the extra demand for biofuel crops is pushing extra agricultural land to be created in natural areas for food purposes since the biofuel crops have mopped up all the existing agricultural land.
Under the Renewable Energy Directive, there are sustainability criteria for direct land use change but they do not go far enough. Moreover, the issue of Indirect Land Use Change is only partially addressed as is further explained below.
Greenhouse Gas impacts:
Biofuels need to show savings of 35% compared to fossil fuels and later 50-60%. As with the environmental impacts, currently we are only taking into account the direct impacts and not the indirect impacts. ILUC emissions just need to be reported on, not accounted for. ILUC signifies emissions by the extra arable land that is being created in natural areas, such as forests and peatlands. As long as these emissions have not been taken into account, the sustainability of biofuels is not secured and the least sustainable biofuels are being subsidised by taxpayers.
The way the decision makers have decided to deal with ILUC is by putting in place a cap on so-called first generation (food based) biofuels, adding some marginal incentives for the more advanced biofuels and asking for reporting on the indirect emissions. However, these are still very weak safeguards.
Without further safeguards running to 2020 and beyond, these policies will not stop the European Union’s global hunger for the production of harmful biofuel crops. They will also contribute to an increase in net Greenhouse Gas Emissions and harmful environmental and social impacts. Current biofuels produced from food crops like maize, sugarcane, rapeseed and soybean oil are unsustainable and are causing worldwide environmental destruction.
The enthusiasm around biofuels as a solution to climate change and energy security must be balanced and the risks from biofuels seriously considered. Within the transport sector, governments should not only focus on first generation biofuels, but a whole range of solutions (including green electricity and biofuels made from waste and residues).
The industry plays a significant role in developing business and job opportuntities in the area of biofuels. It has invested significant amounts and, according to a study by Ecofys, 95% of the investments would be returned by 2017. Taking this into account, stringent criteria, including full ILUC accounting, should be put in place by that time to start driving investments into more sustainable forms of transport energy.