by Klever Descarpontriez
What are biofuels and How did they come into existence?
As the climate crisis worsens and we stand closer to the edge of an imminent climate catastrophe, governments of the world are starting to realize the importance of sustainable energy production. Sadly, not all options currently on the table and marketed as green solutions are actually “green”, or solutions to climate change.
This is the case of European Union’s push for an increased share and promotion of biofuels in the transportation sector through multiple directives. Simply put, a biofuel is a fuel derived from biological materials, such as plants and animals. At first, biofuels seemed like a viable option because of their carbon neutrality potential. The idea that one could start powering their cars using land-based oils as opposed to continue to burn fossil fuels was received enthusiastically by many Europeans. To top that off, not only would you be reducing emissions from transport, but you would also be creating a new market for farmers and making cars less dependent on foreign oil imports (enhancing national energy security). This is probably what the European Union had in mind when they came up with the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and the Fuel Quality Directive (FQD) in 2003.
The history –
A legislative timeline of biofuels at the EU
The Commission submits a proposal for a Directive on the promotion of the use of biofuels for the transport sector.
The proposal is presented to the Economic and Social Committee, Committee of the Regions, Council of the European Union and has its first reading in the European Parliament.
Directive 2003/30/EC, more popularly known as the biofuel directive (or the Directive on the Promotion of the use of biofuels and other renewable fuels for transport) is voted on becomes effective in May. The directive stipulates that countries across the European Union should take national measures to replace 5.75% of fossil fuels in the transport sector with biofuels by 2010 when biofuels were incentivised officially by the EU.
A proposal is presented by the Commission for a new Directive amending Fuel Quality Directive. The amendment required fuel suppliers to reduce the lifecycle of greenhouse gas emissions from transport fuels by 1% each year after 2011.
2009 – Renewable Energy Directive (RED)
The European Parliament and the Council approve Directive 2009/28/EC. This new Directive promotes the use of energy from renewable sources and amending the previous one and subsequently repealing Directives 2001/77/EC and 2003/30/EC.
2009 – Fuel Quality Directive (FQD)
At the same time, the European Parliament and the Council approve Directive 2009/30/EC, which amends Directive 98/70/EC in regards to the specification of petrol, diesel, and gas-oil and introduces a mechanism to monitor and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
These two Directives combined set binding targets for 10% renewable energy in transport fuel by 2020 and the decarbonisation of transport fuels by 6% by 2020.
This rings the alarm for many environmental groups and NGOs. Concerned citizens start demanding that the Commission properly assess the social, environmental and climate impacts of land-based oils before the EU continues to push for biofuels. Some people oppose the introduction of targets for biofuels. The EU turns a deaf ear to the concerns raised and instead adopts a climate and energy package that translates these targets into biofuel mandates. This energy package, also referred to as the 20-20-20 package, was thought to help the EU meet its commitments for 2020 under the UN climate change negotiations by demanding a 20% reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels; raising the share of EU energy consumption produced from renewable resources to 20%; and finally, by improving the EU’s energy efficiency also by 20%
Less than three years later, after the approval of both directives in 2009, the Commission makes a new proposal to the European Parliament and the Council. The new Directive is meant to amend Directive 98/70/EC relating to the quality of petrol and diesel fuels and amend Directive 2009/28/EC on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources. This decision reacts to evidence showing the climate impact of some biofuels could be worse than fossil fuels. The Commission proposes a 5% limit for food-based biofuels. The European Parliament amends this to 6% and the EU member states finally change the proposed limit once more to 7%.
After two years of intense debate and negotiations, the proposal finally moves forward. In February, the Environmental Committee approves the draft law to cap the production of conventional biofuels and accelerate the shift to advanced biofuels. In June, the EU Energy Council reaches political agreement on the proposal. In December, the Transport, Telecommunications, and Energy Councils adopt the proposal reflecting concerns about the sustainability and GHG-reduction benefits of some biofuels.
There is political momentum for a vote. Not so many weeks ago, on the 28th of April of the present year, the European Parliament votes to approve the new legislation that limits the way in which Member States can meet the target of 10% for renewables in transport fuels by 2020. This new piece of legislation is also referred to as the iLUC Directive (Indirect Land Use Change). This latest addition to the regulation of biofuel use requires Member States to translate international law into domestic law by 2017.
2014 is also the year the EU approved a new Climate & Energy Union Package for 2030. Some parts of this package were also used in March of 2015 when the EU submitted their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The history –
What is wrong with biofuels? Why are they so controversial?
Biofuels (and the Directives) have proven to be a controversial issue due to the following environmental reasons:
1.- The directives seem to forget that the use of renewable fuels are not the only way to reduce CO2 emissions and make the transport sector cleaner/greener. For example, they do not consider alternative methods such as reducing the amount of cars circulating within the European Union or increasing the appeal of the public transportation system by upgrading the already existing facilities, creating safer and improved bike-lanes in big cities, or electrifying the transport system to slowly reduce its dependency on fossil fuels.
2.- Promoting and rushing the use of biofuels in one of the biggest markets in the world can cause indirect social impacts in the place of their production or manufacture, for the simple reason that biofuels take up land. For example, Reuters(1) made some calculations based on an average of 15 of the studies for the Commission and they found out that “Satisfying the EU’s demand alone will require an additional 4.5 million hectares of land by 2020” or the area roughly equal to the size of Denmark.”
3.- This later translates into one of the main drivers behind land-grabbing in other continents (usually in developing countries in Africa, but also Latin America and Asia) and huge extensions of arable land used to grow these new cash-crops as opposed to feeding the world.
4.- The push for biofuels promotes unsustainable agriculture. Seeking competition in the biofuels market, people opt for agricultural intensification. These intensive or monoculture agricultural productions have detrimental effects on biodiversity, soil, and water, and they increase pollution.
5.- Biofuels put pressure on water. An FAO(2) information note estimates that 2,500 liters of water are used in the production of one liter of biofuel.
6.- Biofuels also put pressure on food prices. The EU policy on biofuel is thought to be the main driver of food price volatility and food price increases. This negatively impacts food security, small-scale farmers, and the most vulnerable in developing countries.
7.- As in the fossil fuel industry, biofuels are highly subsidized. The IISD Global Subsidies Initiative(3) estimates that almost 6 billion euros per year are spent subsidizing the biofuels industry.
8.- Serious concerns relating the indirect land use change (or ILUC).
In order to make land available for biofuel plantations, entire forests (and everything that comes with them – plant life, animal life and human life) may be cleared. When this happens, the forest that used to act as a carbon-sink releases all that carbon back into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. This is probably the most controversial and counterproductive part of biofuels and its Directives, since they are meant or aim to reduce emissions.
To iLUC or not to iLUC-
This is a complex question. As these Directives are the product of almost a decade and a half of negotiations, the process involves many stakeholders and there is simply not enough political will to change it. From some people’s point of view, the EU could start by not committing the same mistakes. If Europe learns from the biofuels lesson, it will stop promoting false solutions to the climate crisis that at the end present more environmental damage and degradation than relief for the planet.
When the Commission was given the mandate by the Parliament to carry out scientific research on iLUC, the findings were so embarrassing that the Commission chose not to publish the report. Instead the Commission decided to propose to cap first generation biofuels at 5%.
Some groups (mainly big agro-business companies) were not happy with the Commission’s findings that a push for agrofuels will actually increase emissions as opposed to reduce them and help decarbonize the transportation sector, so they decided to attack and question the science behind iLUC to slow down the process and further discussions on the topic. They told the Commission that they could not make political decisions based on predictions and economic modeling (both generally used in climate science) and that the report should not be used to inform further modifications to the two Directives.
The Parliament responded by raising the proposed cap to 6% and decided to consider the report on iLUC. Finally, the Council approved a cap at 7% (current consumption levels) two years later at the first reading, closing the biofuel chapter almost after a decade.
Is there a way forward? A French perspective
For many environmental organizations, especially climate justice groups, biofuels were a bad idea since its first conception in the early 2000s. In another attempt to green our economies the European Union pushed for the mainstreaming of biofuels to reduce emissions from the transport sector. Little did they know that biofuels have detrimental environmental and social impacts that were not factored in before passing both Directives.
After a lot of pressure and campaigning, the Commission was mandated to look and take into account iLUC (Indirect Land Use Change) in further deliberations of biofuels policy. The research and the final report confirmed many biofuels were scientifically proven to be counterproductive. The European Union took note of that and decided not to include references to biofuels in their new energy and climate union package recently adopted with goals and targets for 2030 (as opposed to the 2020 package that did include biofuels mandates). This move was welcomed by many green groups and sent a strong signal to other countries that are going down the biofuels road.
Not only do biofuels raise serious environmental integrity concerns, but they also raise many ethical and moral concerns that put in question the European Union’s priorities as a society that strives towards a greener future. As French politician, member of the French Green Party and Green MEP, Pascal Durand expressed in a conference exploring hunger as the other face of climate change, “comme on peut le mettre sur le même balance l’agriculture et la production d’énergie?” (How can we put agriculture and the production of energy on the same scale?).
Under the flag of sustainable development, the EU is trying to fix the energy system by ruining the agricultural system. Both systems are currently broken, failing specially those who are most in need, and they should be fixed separately. Emissions from one sector should not be compared to emissions from another as they are neither fungible nor comparable. They follow different natural processes and an attempt to equalize them to make carbon trading easier is no more than a false solution to the climate crisis.
Pascal then exposed biofuels as false solutions and said that “la terre est pour la nourriture, pas pour nous de conduire plus avec une conscience claire” (the land is meant for food, not for us to drive more with a clean conscience). The only way forward is not by greening capitalism or coming up with even greener terms and concepts like ‘second generation’ biofuels or ‘second stage’ in the biofuel debate. Biofuels should have never been an option to start with. We can only rise up to the climate change challenge by changing our patterns of production and consumption, decarbonizing our economies, stopping dirty energy projects, and adopting fair and ambitious drastic domestic emission cuts in the industry sector.
- The End Game on Biofuels : Europe slams the brakes on biofuels. (2015). Retrieved June 10, 2015, from ttp://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/agrofuels/2015/briefing_-_the_end_game_on_biofuels.pdf
- Biofuel Directive 2003/30/EC. (2003). Retrieved June 10, 2015, from https://www.energy-community.org/pls/portal/docs/36290.PDF
- Fuel Quality Directive 2009/30/EC. (2009). Retrieved June 10, 2015, from http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:32009L0030
- Renewable Energy Directive 2009/28/EC. (2009). Retrieved June 10, 2015, from http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32009L0028
- “Africa Mulls Biofuels as Land Grab Fears Grow.” Reuters. Reuters, 1 Nov. 2010. Web. 11 June 2015. . <http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/11/30/us-africa-biofuels-idUSTRE6AT3ZE20101130>
- “Water at FAO.” Food and Agriculture Organization. Food and Agriculture Organization. Web. 11 June 2015. <http://www.fao.org/nr/water/docs/wateratfao.pdf>
- “Addendum to Biofuels–At What Cost? A Review of Costs and Benefits of EU Biofuel Policies.” International Institute for Sustainable Development, 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 June 2015. <https://www.iisd.org/gsi/news/addendum-biofuels>