Minimising climate impact from biofuels
Biofuels can contribute significantly to the EU’s 2020 targets for renewable energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from road fuels. However, to have a positive impact on climate change, biofuels must be produced sustainably, with minimum competition with food and feed production. To achieve this, the Commission has proposed measures to limit the amount of biofuels from food crops that can be counted towards the 2020 targets.
Not all biofuels have the same impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The first generation now being produced comes from items such as sugar, cereals and vegetable oils. They compete directly with food and feed crops for agricultural land. This can lead to additional land conversion and subsequent release of emissions. If forests are cleared to make way for new farm land to compensate for the hectares given over to biofuel production, the end result may be greater greenhouse gas emissions than those previously emitted by fossil fuels. Second and third generation biofuels use feedstocks such as waste, algae or straw and so do not interfere with global food production.
The Commission is now taking these knock-on effects, known as Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC), into account when proposing measures to promote advanced biofuels. As Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard explains: ‘Technically, ILUC is very complicated. Politically, it is very simple particularly when the World Bank highlights the problems of rising food prices.’
Under existing European legislation, renewable energy must account for 10% in the transport sector by 2020 and the fuel used must reduce greenhouse gases by 6% by the same date. Biofuels can make a significant contribution to both targets.
To prevent escalating competition over limited agricultural land, the Commission is proposing to cap at 5% the contribution food-based biofuels can make to the 10% target. Additional incentives are also proposed for advanced biofuels that do not require any land for their production, which would be then counted four times. The Commission is also asking member states to include the emissions from indirect land use change when reporting the greenhouse gas emissions savings obtained from biofuels.
The Commission is looking to increase to 60% the minimum greenhouse gas saving threshold that new installations using biofuels must achieve. This is designed to improve the efficiency of biofuel production processes and to discourage investment in plants with low greenhouse gas performance.
The Commission is not proposing to close down first generation biofuel plants. But it is determined to send a clear signal that further growth in the sector must concentrate on advanced biofuels that are sustainable. It also believes that first generation biofuels should not receive any public support beyond 2020.