Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Environment Committee rejects 10% EU biofuels target

The Parliament's Environment Committee met last night to vote on its opinion for the report that is currently being drafted in the Energy Committee by the Luxembourg Green MEP Claude Turmes on the Commission's proposals for increasing the use of renewables by 20% by 2020. The Turmes report was supposed to be voted on in the Energy Committee next week but with over 1100 amendments tabled, the vote has been postponed until early September.

With all the growing disquiet about the potential impact of biofuels on rising food prices (with the growing competition between crops for fuel or food), accelerating mass deforestation and water shortages and the extent to which it can actually deliver the required reductions in CO2 emissions, the Environment Committee voted to reject the Commission's proposed mandatory target of getting at least 10% of road transport fuels from biofuels by 2020.

In the end, the Committee voted through a number of compromise amendments which supported a target of at least 4% of road transport fuels from renewable sources by 2015. Out of this, at least 20% should be met by the use of electricity or hydrogen from renewable sources, biogas or transport fuels from ligno-cellulosic biomass and algae. A new 8-10% could be set for 2020 out of which 40-50% is met by the use of electricity or hydrogen from renewable sources, biogas or transport fuels from ligno-cellulosic biomass and algae. The exact target for 2020 is to be decided in 2015 subject to "a major review of the overall experience of the policy for renewable energy for transport – with a special focus on the eventual negative consequences for food security and biodiversity as well as the commercial availability of transport fuels from lingo-cellulosic biomass and/or algae, biogas and the use of electricity or hydrogen from renewable sources".

These compromise amendments had cross-party support and were also backed by Claude Turmes but we will still have to wait and see whether they are taken on board by the Parliament's Energy Committee in September. A number of the Parliament's other committees have already backed the 10% mandatory biofuels target including Agriculture, Regional Development and Transport.

The Environment Committee report also outlines a number of environmental and social sustainability criteria for the usage of biofuels, which are certainly more stringent than those outlined by the Commission. For example, new criteria were added such as changes in water quality, water consumption, air pollution and soil quality, as well as for land owners, respect for local communities and native peoples. MEPs also voted to opt for a two-stage approach, under which biofuels that fail to deliver life-cycle CO2 savings of at least 45% compared to fossil fuels would be banned from the start, while those delivering less than 60% savings would be excluded as of 2015.

Our colleagues in the Green Group had also put down amendments for the land used for food and feed production not to be converted for the production of transport fuels and that transport fuels from biomass should be limited to production from idle, marginal or degraded land without high biodiversity value where the direct land use conversion results in a net carbon benefit and that there are no significant negative environmental or other impacts.

The Environment Committee also wants to encourage the development of alternatives such as electric cars and hydrogen, based on renewables and biogas, which would play a role alongside biofuels (provided the latter is accompanied by strict criteria) in curbing greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector.

Yesterday’s vote comes at a time when the EU's Energy and Environment Ministers are also backing away from the EU's proposed 10% binding biofuels target - a position that was reinforced with the publication of a report for the UK government by the independent UK Renewable Fuels Agency ("Gallagher" report) which has called for the slowing down of the introduction of biofuels until there is more evidence of its impact on land use and climate change.

Proposals by Claude Turmes in his draft report to scrap the 10% binding target are to be welcomed not leastbecause a fixed binding target would not allow any flexibility to use renewable energy sources where they would be most efficient. Also to be welcomed are proposals for creating a clear hierarchy for uses of biomass for energy, with "go" areas (like biomass from waste streams and residue from agriculture), and "no go" areas like agrofuels and biodiverse landscapes.

Farming land has to be used first and foremost for the production of food. While there is a clear need to ensure that strict and binding sustainability criteria are developed to enable the sustainable production of biofuels, there is also a need for greater support for the research and development of more efficient energy use in the transport sector and at the same time investing in research into second generation biofuels. We have to look at ways in which our own energy use can be reduced.

Scotland has for example a number of innovative projects for developing biofuels (biogas, large scale digesters for municipal solid waste, marine biomass, algae and seaweed, abbatoir by-products and animal manure) from various non-food crops and waste, not least the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban which is looking at the potential of seaweed for biomass and biofuel production. Napier University has also recently opened a biofuels research centre for developing second generation biofuels. Such research is crucial to see how the development of these technologies can best be utilised to enable the sustainable development of biofuels, which in the long run can help tackle climate change.

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