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European Commision Promotes Vague Standards for Biofuels

Hedegaard. Photo: 2C

European Commission published a proposal to limit global land conversion for biofuel production, and raise the climate benefits of biofuels used in the EU. The use of food-based biofuels to meet the 10% renewable energy target of the Renewable Energy Directive will be limited to 5%. This is to stimulate the development of alternative, so-called second generation biofuels from non-food feedstock, like waste or straw, which emit substantially less greenhouse gases than fossil fuels and do not directly interfere with global food production. For the first time, the estimated global land conversion impacts – Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) – will be considered when assessing the greenhouse gas performance of biofuels.

“This proposal will give new incentives for best-performing biofuels. In the future, biofuels will be saving more substantial greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our fuel import bill.” Günther Oettinger, Energy Commissioner

”For biofuels to help us combat climate change, we must use truly sustainable biofuels. We must invest in biofuels that achieve real emission cuts and do not compete with food. We are of course not closing down first generation biofuels, but we are sending a clear signal that future increases in biofuels must come from advanced biofuels. Everything else will be unsustainable”. Connie Hedegaard, Commissioner for Climate Action

Biofuels, produced sustainably and under efficient processes, are a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels in the EU’s energy mix and for transport in particular. Biofuels are easy to store and deploy, have a high energy density and typically emit substantially less greenhouse gases than oil, gas or coal. Only biofuels, which satisfy a set of sustainability criteria qualify for public support on the European market, reads the EC press release.

Environmental groups, however, strongly criticize the proposal. European Commission has acknowledged the climate impact of biofuel emissions from indirect land-use change (ILUC) but does not tackle it. The proposed obligation to monitor ILUC emissions from biofuels will not solve the key environmental issue of halting production of unsustainable biofuels that are, in some cases, more harmful to the climate than fossil fuels, Transport & Environment says.

If ILUC emissions were included, most biodiesel available in the market today would qualify as high carbon fuels and would not count towards the targets in the RED and the FQD anymore. However, today’s proposal only requires reporting of ILUC emissions but does not include them, so it actually still allows high carbon biofuels to count for meeting these targets.

T&E’s programme manager for fuels, Nusa Urbancic, says: “Even though the science has shown that including indirect emissions can make biofuels’ climate impact higher than fossil fuels, the Commission decided to miss the opportunity to steer the production towards more sustainable biofuels. To paraphrase Keynes’ famous quote, the Commission chose to be precisely wrong rather than roughly right.”

T&E welcomes the proposed 5% limit in the use of crop-based biofuels that count towards the 10% renewable energy target in transport because it prevents a further expansion of today’s unsustainable biofuels. However, the cap does not address the fundamental issue of counting ILUC emissions towards meeting the carbon reduction targets.

“While the EC proposal limits today’s bad practices, it does not fundamentally steer future bioenergy in a sustainable direction, because it still does not account for ILUC emissions from biofuels. This creates risks and uncertainties for the environment as well as for investors”, Nusa Urbancic, Transport & Environment

British group’s RSPB Head of Climate Change Policy, Harry Huyton, said “these proposals are a significant step forward in the fight to end targets and subsidies for biofuels from crops.”

“We are disappointed that the proposals do not go further, and that significant concessions have been made to the lobbies that represent those who benefit from biofuel subsidies.”

“In particular, we believe that the cap on food based biofuels should be 0% and should be adjusted to include inedible biofuel crops such as jatropha that have just as much potential as crop based biofuels to drive deforestation and habitat loss,” concludes Huyton.


The Commission is proposing to amend the current legislation on biofuels through the Renewable Energyand the Fuel QualityDirectives and in particular:

  • To increase the minimum greenhouse gas saving threshold for new installations to 60% in order to improve the efficiency of biofuel production processes as well as discouraging further investments in installations with low greenhouse gas performance.
  • To include indirect land use change (ILUC) factors in the reporting by fuel suppliers and Member States of greenhouse gas savings of biofuels and bioliquids;
  • To limit the amount of food crop-based biofuels and bioliquids that can be counted towards the EU’s 10% target for renewable energy in the transport sector by 2020, to the current consumption level, 5% up to 2020, while keeping the overall renewable energy and carbon intensity reduction targets;
  • To provide market incentives for biofuels with no or low indirect land use change emissions, and in particular the 2nd and 3rd generation biofuels produced from feedstock that do not create an additional demand for land, including algae, straw, and various types of waste, as they will contribute more towards the 10% renewable energy in transport target of the Renewable Energy Directive.

With these new measures, the Commission wants to promote biofuels that help achieving substantial emission cuts, do not directly compete with food and are more sustainable at the same time. While the current proposal does not affect the possibility for Member States to provide financial incentives for biofuels, the Commission considers that in the period after 2020 biofuels should only receive financial support if they lead to substantial greenhouse gas savings and are not produced from crops used for food and feed.

The biofuels sustainability criteria, which are in force today, prevent the direct conversion of forests and wetlands and areas with a high biodiversity value for biofuel production and require that biofuels must emit a minimum of 35% less greenhouse gases than the fossil fuels they replace. This requirement will increase to 50% in 2017.

However, there is a risk that part of the additional demand for biofuels will be met through an increase in the amount of land devoted to agriculture worldwide, leading to an indirect increase in emissions due to land conversion. Therefore, the Commission was asked to review the impact of indirect land use change (ILUC) on greenhouse gas emissions and propose legislative action for minimizing that impact.

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