Biofuels have been blamed for contributing to a rise in food prices as crops are used for fuel. Above: Indonesian forest is cleared for palm oil. Photograph: AFP/Getty
EU policy on biofuels reaches a critical stage on Wednesday with a scheduled vote by the European parliament on proposed limits on the use of crop-based fuels.
The plenary vote in Strasbourg comes amid lobbying by the industry to push back against votes at the committee stage in June. In key votes, the environment committee voted to limit the use of biofuels to 5.5% of total transport, while the industry committee voted for a 6.5% limit.
In 2008, the EU set a target for renewables to comprise 10% of transport fuel by 2020, most of which would come from so-called first generation biofuels made from sugar, cereals and oilseeds. Subsequent studies have underlined the potential environmental damage caused by some biofuels, particularly biodiesel, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the estimated €13bn EU biofuel industry.
In the latest salvo, Friends of the Earth said in a report that palm oil use had increased much more than predicted and was now at 20% of the biodiesel mix.
“Palm oil is driving mass deforestation, wildlife loss, community conflicts, and accelerating climate change,” said Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe. “It is alarming to find that palm oil use in European cars is sky-rocketing, and will only increase further, unless MEPs put a halt to increasing biofuels. Drivers are unknowingly being forced to fill up with a fuel that is destroying rainforests, communities and the climate.”
Biofuels have also been blamed by the IMF and others for contributing to a rise in food prices as crops are used for fuel instead of food.
In the runup to the vote, the biofuels industry has warned of plant closures and job losses if members of the European parliament (MEPs) vote for a lower limit. The sector argues that a higher limit will give time for companies to make enough money to invest in the new generation of biofuels derived from waste, algae or agricultural residues, rather than food crops.
“It is crucial for our renewable energy and climate change targets that the first generation biofuels industry be allowed further room to grow,” said Clare Wenner, head of transport at the Renewable Energy Association. “Agricultural biofuels are the only viable supply side option for decarbonising transport in the near term. Businesses will only invest in more expensive, riskier advanced biofuels, made from unconventional feedstocks such as wastes and algae, if they have certainty in the current policy framework.”
The uncertainty surrounding the vote stems from divisions among the political blocs, with positions changing daily.
“It is very divided and it difficult to predict,” said Anders Dahlbeck, a biofuels expert at ActionAid, which is urging MEPs to vote for a 5% limit with a view to phasing out biofuels. “It looks as if we will end up with 6% though there is still time for progressive MEPs to get it closer to 5%.”
The vote will not be the final matter. That will depend on negotiations between the European parliament and the 27 member states in the European council, itself deeply divided. France, Poland and Spain with their strong agricultural lobbies, favour higher limits, while the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK prefer the 5.5% cap. The expectation is that a final decision will come before the European parliamentary elections in May.
Last year, the European commission set the ball rolling by proposing a 5% limit on counting food crop-based biofuels. The commission said the move would stimulate the development of alternative, “second generation” biofuels, which emit substantially fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels and do not directly interfere with food production. It also proposed for the first time to take into account the impact of deforestation, peatland drainage or other land clearance caused by biofuels in their carbon footprint.
Environment and development campaigners argue this factor – indirect land-use change (Iluc) – has been missing from calculations of the green credentials of biofuels. The British government is backing the 5.5% limit put forward by the environment committee.
“Any cap should be as low as possible to ensure a meaningful impact on Iluc emissions,” said a Foreign Office briefing paper.
The UK said it did not support sub-targets for next generation biofuels on the grounds that they were not produced on a commercial scale and it was unclear when they might be, what volumes would be available and at what price.
“It is extremely unlikely that even a 1% target could be fulfilled,” said the Foreign Office. “And advanced biofuel shortage, plus an inflexible sub-target, would furthermore drive up prices, suck up imports and significantly increase the cost compliance of member states.”
However, the UK said it did not support the environment committee’s proposal for including Iluc after 2020 as the renewable energy directive and the fuel-quality directive did not extend beyond that date. But whether Tory and Lib Dem MEPs pay any attention to what the Foreign Office recommends is another matter as they have not paid much heed to what Whitehall has had to say so far on the issue.