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Europe and Central Asia

Bye, Bye (bad) Biofuels

By Trees Robijns, 13 Apr 2015

Europe has turned its back on first generation biofuels and placed the first footsteps in the sand for where it wants to go next. This week, the Environmental Committee signed off on the ILUC deal with the Council, and so five years of discussion about biofuels are over.

On the 14th of April, the Environmental Committee took an important vote: agreeing with the Council’s “take it or leave it” proposal on Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) and biofuels. In taking this decision, the committee has sacrificed a hell of a lot on its original position, taken just a month and a half ago, but the tone is now set for the years to come: Europe will no longer support first generation biofuels and will begin to draw the first elements of its future sustainable transport policy.

The fight over ILUC has been going on for more than 5 years now. It started when the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) were voted in 2009 and established targets in the transport sector for renewables and the de-carbonization of fuels. This led to a massive investment in classic biofuels: those made from food crops, such as rapeseed biodiesel or wheat ethanol, which can be blended straight into regular fuel and tanked at the pump without anyone noticing where it comes from.

Already in 2009, concerns were voiced about the sustainability of biofuels: where would this extra land come from? Would it be grown where there is still space, namely in natural areas? These direct effects had to be avoided. But what about the indirect effects? What if it is grown on existing agricultural land, taking the place of critical food production throughout the world?

These issues were not solved at the time the legislation was approved, and so we were left with 5 years of discussion about the impact of biofuels, land use changes, food prices, ethical discussions about food versus fuel, indirect emissions, effects on biodiversity and water use, existing investments, job creation etc., etc. On the 14th April, the results of these five years of talks were voted in the ENVI Committee and are expected to be confirmed by the EP plenary on 29th April and the Council of EU ministers shortly thereafter.

So what is the final compromise now and what does it mean? There are three key elements: first, there is the cap on first generation biofuels: a 7% cap has been set, thereby curving the growth of these land eating biofuels (estimated to be 8.6% of the energy used by transport). This must be read together with signals that the Commission has already given in its communication on the 2030 climate and energy package where the Commission has deliberately scrapped all future transport targets and announced the end of support for “food based” biofuels. This means the end of subsidies for first generation biofuels post 2020.

The second element is reporting of indirect emissions: even if ideally these emissions should have already been taken into account when deciding on whether or not we subsidize biofuels, reporting will send a strong signal. That clearly, Europe cannot run a credible climate policy whilst reporting high indirect emissions year after year: reporting will stimulate us all to search for solutions to decarbonize the transport sector more fundamentally.

Finally, it also sends a signal on where we need to focus next: a low indicative sub-target of 0.5% for “advanced biofuels” has been put forward by Member States for (some questionable) feedstocks such as by-products of existing industries and agriculture or forestry waste streams that are now labelled as “advanced”. This is flanked with wording on more “future oriented” energy efficiency and renewable electrification. Nonetheless, the core message is that legislators want a more sustainable system to not repeat past mistakes (something that investors will have to take seriously into consideration this time). That is why policy makers have put in place rules for biofuels regarding the waste hierarchy, cascading use, avoidance of competition for agricultural land, etc. This should be a key element for future policies concerning the sustainability of all forms of bioenergy which the Commission mentioned in the energy union communication.

So, even if many may have been confused by the acronym ILUC, what has been voted by the ENVI Committee is quite straightforward: Europe is ready to turn its back on first generation biofuels and instead, has begun placing the first footsteps in the sand for where it wants to go next.