Europe and Central Asia
3 Nov 2014

Up for decision: land for food or fuel?

Photo courtesy of Ade Long
By Trees Robijns

Will land based biofuels be limited? Will the second generation repeat the fiasco? Will they keep damaging nature and be as bad as fossil fuels in terms of GHG emissions? EU institutions are about to provide the answers. Hopefully, the right ones.

Is Europe finally going to decide that we are not in favour of putting food in our tank? That is what we have been asking ourselves since almost 6 years[1]. Now, in fall 2014, we seem to be getting closer to a final decision. Most of the food for fuel debate goes back to the EU target obliging Member States to have a share of 10% renewables in the transport sector. We have been claiming that the target (and the conditions around it) must be changed as it is only addressing land based biofuels instead of changing the way Europe and Europeans are moving.

In the so-called second reading procedure, the European Parliament, Council of Ministers and European Commission need to agree on a number of thorny questions.

First: will Europe cap the use of land based biofuels that are increasing food prices and driving the gold rush for more and more land? And if yes at what amount? The 5% (of the total) that the Commission proposed, the 6% that the Parliament proposed or the 7% that the Council proposed[2]? BirdLife and others are asking to limit all land based biofuels at the lowest percentage.

Second, in the comparison between biofuels and fossil fuels, how much better do biofuels need to be in order to get subsidies? Should we measure all the emissions or just the direct emissions? NGOs have been asking to also include the indirect emissions. Even though these indirect emissions (called Indirect Land Use Change or ILUC) might be hidden at home, they might impact areas on the other side of the world. And if that means more emissions going into the atmosphere, or more rainforests being chopped down, we need to try and stop it. The Commission and Council just want to “report them” (with the Council even bringing in extra fishy reporting rules) while the Parliament wants to include them, although partially, and only at a later stage. Reporting alone would clearly be a farce.

Finally, the “future” issue. What next? Electric cars? Other forms of biofuels? And if so, what does that mean? How advanced, land based, food based, GHG intensive? It is crucial that we get alternatives, but it is just as crucial that we are not repeating the mistakes of the past. Second generation biofuels that increase unsustainable agriculture or forestry intensification, take every bit of waste and residues from our countryside without leaving anything behind for the many species that depend on it, or biofuels that demand high amounts of first class agricultural or forestry productscannot be considered “advanced” but simply… a continuation of the current problem.

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At the moment, the three institutions (Commission, Coucil and Parliament) are competing with each other in terms of who gives more impetus to the (next generation) industry.

In the next couple of months Europe will have to take a final decision on where to take our transport sector in the future and what it means for our land, wheter it’s given to food or fuel. This decision has been long awaited by the public and NGOs who keep on hearing that they are tanking land instead of clean energy. We expects the Parliament, Council and Commission to take ambitious stands on the matter and profoundly “renew” Europe’s direction.

[1] 2009 was the year in which the Renewable Energy Directive and Fuel Quality Directive were published.

[2] That is between half and three quarters of the 10% RED transport target.


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.