Bursting the Bubble

EP Vote on ILUC Proposal, the (Long) Road to Sustainable Biofuels

20 September 2013 | by

On the 11th September 2013, the European parliament adopted its position on the so-called iLUC proposal (Indirect Land-Use Change). This legislation aims at ensuring that unintended consequences on the environment connected with the growing biofuels market are taken into consideration.

The Commission has committed itself to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and for this purpose, promotes the use of energy from renewable sources. The Directive on Renewable Energy (RED) sets a 20% target for the overall energy from renewable sources, and a 10% share target of renewable energy specifically in the transport sector by 2020. Indeed, the greenhouse gas emissions from transport account for 21% of total emissions. Additionally, the constant increase of the price of oil requires a secure energy supply and diversification of fuel sources to avoid high dependence on fossil fuels. Therefore, the Commission has created incentives for the use of biofuels; developing a strategy to stimulate demand, increase production and enable distribution.

The strategy paid off, even if we are far from a tremendous surge in their development, biofuels account for the largest share of the renewable energy used in transport. Between 2008 and 2010, the volume of biofuels consumed in the EU increased by 39%, whereas the volume of petroleum fuels consumed in road transport slightly decreased.[1]

The use of biofuels in transportation should aid in reducing GHG. However, alarming reports have highlighted their potential negative impact. Indeed, scientists and environmentalists have pointed out that the expansion of agricultural areas to produce biofuel leads to change in land-use and deforestation, resulting in GHG emissions, as well as an increase in the food prices. It affects both EU and non EU countries, particularly emerging countries such as Brazil or Indonesia.[2] The benefits of biofuels have been challenged, leading the Commission in October 2012, to issue a proposal amending the RED, as well as the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD).

The proposal attempts to address this issue of indirect land-use change. It puts forth sustainability criteria for biofuels which should not threaten biodiversity. To be deemed successful, this would need to save at least 35% compared to fossil fuels, increasing to 50% in 2017. Moreover, the impact of iLUC will be taken into consideration for the assessment of GHG emissions.

With this proposal, the Commission also seeks to start a transition to advanced biofuels (or 2nd generation biofuels), putting a 5% cap on the 1st generation biofuels (conventional biofuels). It shows a will to respect the investments which have been made to encourage more innovation in this field.

Last week during the plenary session in Strasbourg, the European Parliament adopted a position on the proposal. The MEPs have voted for a 6% cap on first generation of biofuels. The other point of focus is  second generation biofuels from non-feedstocks, for instance seaweed or farm waste. Some NGOs denounced the watering down of the text with the 6% cap, but positively welcomed the consideration of the ILUC factor from 2020 onwards.

The dossier, which divided the Commission when the proposal came out last October, has once more proven to be very controversial. The scientific community has raised questions concerning the uncertainty of assessing iLUC’s impact on the environment, which is, seemingly, not based on scientific evidence. The proposal was subjected to intense lobbying on behalf of the biofuel industry, striving to protect its investments. As a result, the MEPs were divided, and no mandate was given to the rapporteur, Corinne Lepage (ALDE, FR) for negotiations with member states. The next step, or let’s say, the next challenge will be for the Council of the European Union to reach a common position on the proposal.

[1] See the report produced for the European Commission

[2] To understand the principle of iLUC consequences of the rise in biofuel consumption and production, you can watch this video.

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