Biofuel debate draws crowds in the European Parliament

Publish date: September 6, 2013

Wednesday 4 September saw Members of the European Parliament (MEP) hosting ‘The big debate: Biofuels’, with a panel of experts from industry, academia and NGOs. The debate was particularly relevant given next week’s European Parliament vote on updating the fuel quality and renewable energy directives, and brought much discussion, particularly on the damaging impacts of biofuels based on food-crops.

The debate was introduced by German socialist MEP Ismail Ertug. Co-host Corinne Lepage, a French liberal MEP, has for the last months been responsible for steering a report on fuel quality and renewable energy through the European Parliament. This update to the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) seeks to rein in a standing European policy which is highly supportive of first-generation biofuels. The directives currently fail to account for biofuel’s emissions from indirect land use change (ILUC) while simultaneously aiming for 10% of transport energy from renewable sources – mainly biofuel – by 2020.

First generation biofuels are those derived from soya, rapseed, palm oil and other food crops, and their extensive use has resulted in higher food prices and the destructive conversion of land. The updated directive therefore aims to limit the EU’s incentives for these first generation biofuels. The Commission proposal set a 5% limit for food-based biofuels to count toward the EU’s 10% target of renewable energy in transport by 2020. This would be a step towards mitigating biofuels’ negative climate impacts and encouraging more second and third generation biofuels, also known as advanced biofuels.  

The report is set to be debated in the European Parliament’s plenary session on Monday 9 September, with the vote on 11 September. It is in anticipation of this vote that more than a hundred stakeholders joined Ertug, Lepage and their diverse panel to discuss the challenges of biofuels. 


Lepage noted that in her role as rapporteur, the key task has not been to push through her own views, but to find compromises. One such compromise involved changing the Commission’s original proposal for a so-called 5% cap on all first generation biofuels to instead distinguish between better and worse performers. The Parliament’s report would therefore allow some biofuels, such as ethanol, to continue their production toward 10% renewable fuels in transport without such a consideration of the 5% limit.

The assessment of which biofuels constitute better or worse performers will be based on their greenhouse gas emissions.  One of the central reasons for promoting biofuels in place of fossil fuels is the belief that biofuels have lower, or in theory neutral, greenhouse gas emissions. Because biofuel feedstocks have already absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere while growing, the CO2 released when they are burned involve no emissions above those naturally occurring when the biomass rots. While this is true in theory, the added consideration of land use change means the reality can be very different.

Biofuels are not automatically low emitters

Indirect land use change (ILUC), and how to account for it, is one of the most contentious issues regarding biofuels. When forests and other habitats absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere are being removed to make room for biofuel crops and new farm land, the result is increased greenhouse gas emissions. This is both from less forest to absorb CO2 and from machinery and transport emissions, increased use of chemicals and fertilizers, reduced biodiversity, labour and social migration. In some cases then, when including ILUC considerations, emissions from first generation biofuels are not significantly lower than emissions from fossil fuels. And several research publications over the last year have indicated that they could be the same or higher.


The problem is the policy, not the fuel

Amongst the 4 September debate’s panelists was ActionAid, whose representative made the point that the problem is not with biofuels, but with the existing policy which encourages excessive use and reliance on first generation biofuels. The debate, however, focused more on the challenges of these first generation biofuels, particularly regarding ILUC and accounting for greenhouse gas emissions, when it could have been an opportunity to delve into the opportunities of advanced biofuels.

Broad progress is being made in these areas, as with the Spanish All-gas project producing biofuel from wastewater algae, and Bellona launching Ocean Forest. The related  Sahara Forest Project has in the past year harvested several of its first food crops, illustrating how growing biomass for energy does not need to compete with food production. And combining biofuels with existing technologies such as CO2 Capture and Storage (CCS) could potentially reverse global warming. Bellona Europa initiated and co-authored the first-of-its kind report on Bio-CCS, outlining the combination of CCS with conversion of sustainable biomass to remove CO2 from the atmosphere over time.  

Following the recent debate, Jonas Helseth, Director of Bellona Europa and Steering Committee member of the European Biofuels Technology Platform (EBTP) noted that: “It is paramount that the discussion regarding biofuels does not only address the problems, but also looks at these solutions being developed.”

The industry-led initiative ‘Leaders of Sustainable Biofuels’ was therefore welcomed when launched in February this year to work towards policy measures encouraging advanced biofuel production. A more robust and predictable 2020 and post 2020 framework is needed to encourage further investment. 

On the ground

The need for compromise is stark in the debate, largely between industry and NGOs. Amongst the debate’s panelists was Nur Hidayati of WALHI, Indonesia’s Friends of the Earth, who came to Brussels to bring the reality of Indonesian biofuels production to EU policy makers. Hidayati illustrated the current expanse of Indonesian palm oil plantations, which are set to expand to three times the size of Portugal by 2020. Hidayati said EU biofuels policy has been a hidden trap for Indonesia. Partly as a result of expansive biofuels production, Indonesia is now the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter.

The debate was moderated by the Institute for European Environmental Policy, and other panelists included representatives from the European Biodiesel Board (EBB), the University of Potsdam, European Feed Manufacturer Association (FEFAC), and Transport & Environment. Transport and Environment have engaged heavily in the biofuels debate and have campaigned for EU legislation to better address and account for the impacts of ILUC. For more information, visit their website