A new direction

EU parliamentarians have voted to limit food crop-based biofuels. That could be good news for developing countries.



Biofuels were always supposed to be a good thing. But not all kinds. In July, the European Union’s (EU) Environment Committee voted to cap the volume of food crop-based biofuels. It said no more than 5.5 per cent of member nations’ transport fuels must originate from food crops. With the current output at just beneath five per cent, the move dramatically limits the £14billion industry. The decision will pass for a full European Parliament session in mid-September.

There is widespread debate behind the decision. Green campaigners have said the EU’s biofuel policy negatively impacts developing countries. They argue food crop-based biofuels demand the freeing up of land, which hampers food production. This, they say, increases food prices and favours large-scale agriculture, of little benefit to locals. Such biofuels also lead to ‘indirect land use change’ (ILUC), such as deforestation, which negatively influences climate change. Many campaigners believe food crop-based fuels do more harm than good. Some even label them as worse than fossil fuels.


The EU has listened. In September last year the European commission proposed a five-per-cent cap, at a time when the industry production was at 4.5 per cent. (The EU has previously introduced a target that biofuels make up 10 per cent of member nations’ transport fuels by 2020.) Disagreement exists within the EU and member states are torn on the issue. Prior to last month’s vote, the Energy Committee suggested a 6.5 per cent cap.

Producers strongly oppose the measures. They argue the cap will hamper nations’ ability to meet the EU’s 2020 target, and that changes to the legal framework will deter investors. They also say the science underpinning ILUC is unreliable. “Even if details are for reporting only, they would represent an enormous threat to our industry,” said Raffaello Garofalo, secretary general of the European Biodiesel Board. “Studies have shown that there can be an 80-per-cent variation [in determining ILUC] depending on one single variable.”

Their protests have been to no avail. MEPs voted 43-26, with one abstention, in favour of setting the cap at 5.5 per cent. The move is designed to accelerate the industry’s investment in alternative biofuels, such as seaweed and waste, which MEPs said would have to make up at least two per cent of total fuel consumption by 2020. They added that this should not be achieved by depriving other industries of raw materials, destabilising EU waste policy or endangering forests and biodiversity. Electricity produced from renewable sources should also make up two per cent; a boost for electric vehicles.


The production of such alternative fuels is yet to reach industrial scales, but campaigners welcomed the decision. “It is encouraging to see that MEPs in charge of protecting our environment finally addressed the elephant in the room by fully accounting for indirect emissions in the EU biofuels policy,” said Nusa Urbancic, clean fuels manager at campaign group Transport & Environment. “This vote will pave the way for truly sustainable transport fuels, which actually reduce emissions as of 2020.”

Others were also positive, but believed the Environment Committee should have gone further.  “The introduction of ILUC factors is an important decision to ensure that only biofuels that benefit the climate are being supported,” said Kenneth Richter, biofuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “But it’s disappointing that the committee has not set a trajectory for phasing out the use of food for fuel, but instead chose to cap it at a level that is even higher than current use.

“It’s crucial that when the parliament’s plenary votes in September, it must not further water down the current proposal.”

Photos: casadaphoto, Timothy Epp, Zeljko Radojko [all via Shutterstock.com].