A new chapter in the EU’s biofuel policy opened in October. After months of internal consultation, the European Commission presented its paper outlining proposed changes to the two EU directives that concern biofuels – the Renewables Directive (2009/28/EC) and the Fuel Quality Directive (98/70/EC). The paper’s two lead commissioners, Günther Oettinger for energy and Connie Hedegaard for climate, want to see a carbon penalty imposed on first-generation bio-fuels (those produced from food or feed crops, such as biodiesel from rapeseed and bioethanol from maize or feed wheat). The Commission had previously assumed that biofuels release less carbon than fossil fuels. But based on recent studies, experts in Brussels now believe that the carbon footprint is much bigger than they had thought.
The EU says that growing crops for energy generation shifts those actually used for food and animal feed to other regions of the world. For example, growing energy crops in Europe and the US can result in areas of rainforest in South America being cleared to create new farmland. Rainforest clearance is then an indirect consequence of the cultivation of energy crops. The felling releases the carbon stored in the soil and trees – an effect that accelerates climate change and therefore must be “charged” to biofuels. This chain of cause and effect is termed indirect land-use change (ILUC).
The European Commission is proposing three levels of ILUC penalties. The highest level, which equates to 55 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per mega-joule (gCO2e/MJ), would be imposed on biofuels from plant oils. The EU feels that biodiesel production incurs a higher ILUC risk than bioethanol production. Sugar-rich crops such as beets, from which bioethanol is obtained, will therefore have a penalty of only 13 gCO2e/MJ. The lowest penalty, 12 gCO2e/MJ, will apply to biofuel from starchy crops like cereals. The Commission’s second key proposal involves capping first-generation biofuels so that they account for no more than five percent of transport fuel.
The EU has set itself the target of replacing ten percent of fossil fuel by renewables by 2020. Biodiesel and bioethanol from food and feed crops currently play the biggest part in this because the alternatives have yet to make any significant contribution: electric vehicles powered by biomethane instead of natural gas are still a rare sight on Europe’s roads. Experts believe that first-generation biofuels already make up five percent of the mix, which means that the cap would effectively halt the expansion of these fuels. The proposals from Brussels have sparked strong reactions. For environmental organisations, the changes are a long-overdue step in the right direction.
Franziska Achterberg, transport expert for Greenpeace in Brussels, is delighted: “After years of delay, the Commission has at last admitted that some biofuels destroy rather than protect the environment.” The biofuel sector, on the other hand, fiercely rejects the measures. Frank Brühning, spokesman for the German Biofuel Industry Association (VDB), explains what the penalty would mean for the sector: “While fossil fuels have a fixed and apparently unchangeable value of 83.8 gCO2e/MJ, the ILUC factor means that biodiesel – irrespective of the raw material – would have an emissions value of 107 gCO2e/MJ and so would no longer emit less greenhouse gas than fossil fuels.”
Bioethanol from starch and sugar-rich crops would fare better, says Brühning: “Bioethanol would score at most 56 gCO2e/MJ, which is still less greenhouse gas than fossil fuels.” But for first-generation bioethanol this would be only a temporary reprieve. Under European legislation a plant-based fuel cannot be sold as biofuel unless it delivers an overall greenhouse-gas saving of at least 35 percent compared to fossil fuel. This requirement will rise to 50 percent in 2015 and to 60 percent in 2018. So in three years’ time bioethanol with the ILUC penalty will no longer meet the legal requirement. Manufacturers would then have to find a way of further reducing carbon dioxide somewhere along the value chain.
One problem is that there is no reliable information on the actual extent of ILUC. The proposed ILUC values are based solely on the study conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Franziska Müller-Langer, a biofuels expert at the German Biomass Research Centre (DBFZ) in Leipzig, acknowledges that the IFPRI study is one of the most comprehensive to date but points out that the ILUC issue is extremely complex: “The underlying models make a large number of assumptions.” She therefore criticises the Commission for accepting the study’s figures without further scrutiny and for using them as the basis for political proposals that will shape the EU’s future biofuels policy.