Will the EU co-legislators rise to the challenge of biofuels?

Friday, December 7, 2012 - 13:54
EC officially recognises biofuels problem: but what next?
In mid October, the European Commission released a key legislative proposal that seeks to amend the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) to take into account the full greenhouse gas footprint of biofuels by including what is known as ‘Indirect Land Use Change’.  It also includes a special cap on the amount of fuel that can come from food sources. A great outcome? Or not? 
ActionAid have been campaigning against the 10% targets for fuel from crops that the EU put in place since 2008. The conversion of vast amounts of land into the large-scale production of biofuels that is required to meet that target is having a devastating impact on communities across the global south. In particular women, who produce the majority of the food in the poorest communities but have little, or no, access to or control over the land in question are vulnerable to land grabs. Those large-scale investments are being incentivised by the EU’s fuel targets. 
So what is the new EC proposal proposing to do about this?
The 5% cap on food based biofuels was a welcome surprise as it marks the first major acknowledgement from the European Commission that food should not be used for fuel.Furthermore it marks a signal from the EC that it will not support first generation biofuels after 2020. This said, the proposal still has some weaknesses inherent to it, which can be addressed by the Parliament and Council in 2013. 
First, the new proposal from the Commission does not contain binding Indirect Land Use Change or ILUC factors, which would ensure that the true and full greenhouse gas impact of biofuels is taken into account. Somewhat bizarrely, the proposal asks states to report on their ILUC levels and to enable the EC to check how much its policies damage the climate. But it does not ask them to do anything about it or to account for ILUC as part of their obligations within the RED.  This is in spite of the fact that the EC acknowledges that the impact of Indirect Land Use Change is ‘significant’. 
Second, whilst the proposal to cap biofuels coming from food sources at 5% is a much welcome recognition of a problem, it still needs to be given a proper set of teeth. The EC has stated that "We are not proposing to limit the production or consumption of crop-based biofuels. We are proposing to cap the incentives. There's a difference”. Furthermore when asked if member states will actually have to scale back on their use of food based biofuels or the financial incentives they give to ensure their consumption, they have answered no. So what real difference will this make?
Will the Parliament and the Council rise to the challenge? 
The answer to that question lies with the Parliament and Council who will both start working on the proposal in early 2013.  Those two institutions have the chance to overturn a fairly shoddy political compromise and give it a reality check. They can do this by making it a requirement for member states not just to report on but also to count the effect of indirect land use change. Likewise, whilst capping food-based biofuels at 5% is a good start, it only goes half way towards solving the problem.  If they are really conscious of the impact of first generation biofuels, they need to progressively move towards a 0% cap on all crop-based biofuels.  
Ultimately a very small percentage of Europe’s citizenry benefit from keeping Europe’s Renewable Energy Directive. Most pay twice: first for the billions of subsidies going to a first generation biofuels industry that is not viable economically without that support. Second for the increases in food prices, which come about when you remove food from the market and put it into cars. People in the developing world are impacted through land grabs for biofuels and through those same price spikes. Meanwhile we are all continuing to be biofooled by the idea that most biofuels are an alternative to fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. So who really benefits here? 
The EU has a great opportunity in this coming year to restore its reputation in terms of genuinely fighting climate change and supporting global social justice by pursuing truly sustainable renewable energies.  It’s time to seize that opportunity.