Biofuels in the Renewable Energy Directive – the final call

On 17 May representatives of the European Parliament, member states and the European Commission will meet to negotiate the provisions on biofuels in the Renewables Directive (RED II).

This might be the last chance to find a compromise that ensures the future of a technology that is critical to reduce carbon emissions in transport. The European Parliament and member states have improved on the initial proposal by the European Commission, but more needs to be done.

Let’s start with the good news. The Parliament and Council have included a renewables target for transport.  Transport accounts for about 25% of total EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is one of the few sectors that has increased emissions over the last 25 years. An ambitious target is therefore necessary to seriously tackle emissions in this sector. The respective 12% and 14% targets proposed by Parliament and Council might not be ambitious enough but are steps in the right direction.

The attempt by the European Commission to cut the cap of crop-based biofuels to 3.8% would have provoked the end of a technology in Europe that until now is the only one that has had some real impact on limiting GHG emissions in road transport. By effectively killing the industry, the 3.8% target would also have destroyed any hope of ever scaling up production of next-generation biofuels. That cap needs to be maintained at 7%.

But the Council’s proposal of allowing member states to reduce their renewable targets in transport and individually set lower caps on plant-based biofuels is wrongheaded. It will fragment the market and fundamentally undermine the decarbonisation of transport in Europe. In addition, the proposal for multiple counting for certain alternative fuels is also a very bad idea. This is just an accounting ruse that would drastically reduce the ambitions and effectiveness of REDII. A better way to incentivise alternative fuels that need extra support would be through appropriate targets.

The Bulgarian presidency’s attempt to bridge the gulf between the European Parliament and Council is to be commended, but unfortunately the wording will satisfy no-one, as it is extremely vague and creates massive uncertainty. Suggesting that member states be allowed to set lower limits for biofuels that lead to deforestation or use of land with high carbon stock if they also set lower limits for biofuels that can be considered close substitutes is vague in the extreme. Without a clear definition of what is meant by close substitute, this will create uncertainty for investors and importers.

In the proposed compromise, biofuels with a low ILUC risk would be excluded from the lower limits EU members would be allowed to set. But no clear definition and criteria of what is a low ILUC risk biofuel exit and developing such definition proves extremely difficult. It would require reliable and transparent ILUC assessments that until now have been absent. According to the GLOBIOM study which is based on data that are 8 years old, Brazilian sugarcane, for example, is among the crop-based feedstocks with the lowest ILUC emissions, but there are no clear criteria to understand whether this would be considered a low-ILUC feedstock. Clearly, carbon saving potential is the only reasonable criteria for the sustainability of biofuels.

The idea of basing the lower limits for biofuels on European Commission bioenergy sustainability reports is simply wrong. What is the legitimacy of the EU to assess foreign nation’s fight against deforestation? Such an approach would represent a dangerous infringement upon the governance and sovereignty of independent nations by the EU. Any such an assessment should be based on one of the many existing certification schemes that are respected by industry and third countries alike, and recognized by the European Commission.

Brazilian sugarcane ethanol has proven unambiguously the massive contribution that certain biofuels can make in the fight against climate change. In 13 years Brazil reduced its carbon emissions  in the transport sector by more than 400 million tonnes thanks to bioethanol, that’s almost five times the performance of the EU.

Thursday 17 May will be a tough day for the negotiators who still have a lot of work to do to achieve a workable solution. This is their last chance to get it right.

* Article originally published in the online version of The Parliament Magazine