EU Parliament sets cap on crop-based biofuels

On Tuesday (28 April), the European Parliament officialized the agreement sealed between EU negotiators for setting a limit to conventional biofuel use to meet the EU 2020 targets on climate change. First-generation biofuels, which are based on crops grown on agricultural land, were imposed a cap of 7 percent in their contribution to the EU target, the EU Parliament said in a press release. According to the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive, 10 percent of energy consumption in transport should come from renewable energy sources by 2020.

The new law aims to cut direct and indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions deriving from the use of agricultural land for energy crops. Allocating agricultural land for biofuel production reduces the area available for food production, and puts pressure to use more land for growing food. For this reason, food production will be partly displaced in other areas which are currently not used for agricultural purposes. This issue is known as indirect land use change (ILUC). See the European Commission webpage on ILUC for further details. Considering the GHG emissions produced in their full lifecycle, conventional biofuels do not cause any relevant emission reduction compared to fossil fuels.

The provision intends to bolster the development of second-generation biofuels, which are produced from non-food sources and can provide significant emissions reduction.

Setting a cap on conventional biofuels is a measure that follows the direction taken by the EU with the decision of removing subsidies to crop-based biofuels after 2020. Member States shall enact the new legislation by 2017 and have to define national targets for advanced biofuels, for which an indicative, non-binding target of 0.5 percent was set out, Euractiv reports.

The new legislation was positively received by numerous stakeholders, although many pointed out that the provision is not absent of flaws. An area of debate relates to the fact that fuel producers and the European Commission will have to provide information about ILUC emissions on a regular basis, but the provision does not systematically include ILUC emissions in the carbon accounting.

“We succeeded in getting a very technical, technological and ideological file to go ahead”, commented Nils Torvalds MEP (ALDE, FI), who steered the law proposal, reports the EU Parliament press release . However, Mr Torvalds observed that they had much higher goals in terms of GHG emissions and technological progress than what was included in the final provision. Similar remarks were given from S&D representatives, who backed the legislation but aimed to set a lower cap.

Lack of satisfaction was expressed by NGOs and various biofuel associations, who talked about “missed opportunity”, NNFCC reports. Although the deal sets a limit to crop-based biofuels use, the 7 percent cap allows for growth of the current first-generation biofuel share, which is now at about 5 percent, remarked European Environmental Bureau (EBB) in a press release.

Ten NGO groups recently published a report calling for a profound reform of the EU bioenergy sector, asking for the inclusion of ILUC emission in carbon accounting and the definition of comprehensive sustainability criteria for biofuel use.

(Image: Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, 2008, Madison, WI, United States. Photo credit: The Open University/Flickr)