The biofuels world is all abuzz with the news that the European Commission is near to agreeing a quite radical shift in its thinking on biofuels. In a draft proposal leaked by Reuters news agency, the Commission now acknowledges the impacts of biofuels on the environment and on people. This follows concerns raised by ActionAid and others, about the greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels. It also reflects the huge amount of bad press that biofuels have been getting as the spoils of the USA’s drought-stricken corn crop are used for ethanol.
But is the Commission just trying to make itself look better, without actually wanting to change anything in practice? Let’s have a look at the detail.
The proposal would mean all emissions from biofuels – including those from indirect impacts - are looked at when calculating the carbon footprint of biofuels. But it will only do so under the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) and not under the renewable energy Directive (RED).
Under the fuel quality Directive petrol companies have to reduce the carbon footprint of their operations by 6% by 2020. Biodiesel (as opposed to ethanol) would – if the proposal were adopted - no longer be useful as a means of meeting the 6% target, because when indirect impacts are considered, their greenhouse gas emissions are pretty much the same as from using fossil fuels, if not worse. The indirect impacts of non-food energy crops like miscanthus or jatropha wouldn’t be counted, however, though they clearly exist.
But the real problem is that indirect emissions are not being factored into the RED which is driving biofuels production. Biodiesel would still count as a renewable energy under the RED, even though it doesn’t save carbon under the FQD!
Clearly, this proposal would be nowhere near to making sure only biofuels that are good for climate change would be used in the EU.
- On stopping the use of precious food and land for biofuels
At present, official plans suggest that most (90%) of the RED 10% target would be delivered through biofuels, and most of that using food based biofuels. The draft proposal would cap at 5% the contribution that food-based biofuels could make to reaching the 10% target. The UK and other countries would be able to produce more than that, but the extra amount wouldn’t be counted towards the 10% target.
The cap sends a clear signal that turning food into fuel is not acceptable, but let’s be clear: it would represent an increase in the amount of food currently used for biofuels in the EU (4.5% of surface transport energy in 2011). And 5% would mean that every year, the EU would burn enough food to feed 190 million people (if not more). This is more than the populations of the UK, France and Italy combined. So again, the Commission’s draft does better on rhetoric but falls short on action.
Overall it’s clear that while the Commission’s proposal is a nice start, it really must try a lot harder if it wants to make sure EU biofuels mandates no longer drive hunger and climate change!
If you agree, then join ActionAid and others in pressing for an end to biofuel mandates.