The frequently caustic battle over European biofuels policy has kicked off again this week as the European Union is set to reverse gear and end years of support for the controversial energy source.
Environmental groups, development non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the biofuels sector were surprised in September when a leak of a long-delayed European Commission legislative proposal suggested that Brussels now wants to halve targets and shift support to more advanced fuels that it says do not displace food farming.
“Biofuels that do not lead to substantial greenhouse gas savings (when emissions from indirect land-use change are included) and are produced from crops used for food and feed should not be subsidised [after 2020],” reads a mid-October draft of the proposal seen by Nature.
In 2003, Europe embraced its first biofuels subsidies, and three years ago the EU adopted targets aiming for 10% of all transport fuels to come from renewable sources by 2020, in effect a target for crop-based biofuels. The target may now be reduced to 7–8%.
The two departments in the commission responsible for drafting the policy adjustment now want to cap the amount coming from food crops at 5% and shift the emphasis from land-derived feedstocks entirely to ‘second-generation’ biofuels coming from municipal waste, algae and agricultural residues (such as stalks, nut shells, husks and cobs).
With biofuels already accounting for 4.5% of transport fuels in Europe, the move would allow very little room for growth, although sources familiar with internal commission discussions report that the departments ultimately shied away from any strict ‘carbon accounting’ for fuels, and went for a simpler cap instead.
They did not believe this to be politically feasible, as it could in principle reduce the use of biofuels much further unless they could be shown to produce emissions savings over fossil fuels.
Farmers’ associations, the industry and the middlemen — the crushers and processors — reacted with a heightened lobbying effort in recent weeks, arguing that the existing policy has raised market expectations, so a sudden shift would ruin the €17-billion (US$22-billion) industry and increase unemployment.
Sources close to the discussions say that debates are likely to continue up until the proposal is scheduled to be officially revealed, on Wednesday 17 October.
The proposals must still be approved by the EU Council of Minsters and the European Parliament, a process unlikely to be completed before 2015. But biofuels firms may already have lost out in the long run as a result of the leaks, as investors exit the sector owing to regulatory uncertainty.
Once hailed as a hero in the battle against climate change, the sector is now viewed as a villain by greens after a series of reports showing that some biofuels may produce greater greenhouse-gas emissions than fossil fuels, once land-use changes are taken into account. Development NGOs, human-rights organizations and indigenous groups have also mounted sharp criticisms of biofuels policies, saying that they push food prices up and result in internecine violence as a product of land disputes.
Food prices are also a sensitive domestic topic in many EU states. As a result, even those agriculture-intensive countries with significant biodiesel production that historically were the major supporters of EU biofuels policies — France, Spain, Italy and Germany — have toned down or reversed their backing.
French President Francois Hollande last week called an emergency meeting of G20 agriculture ministers. They are due to meet in Rome on Tuesday (16 October) to consider a coordinated response to the sharp spike in food prices that has followed the worst US drought in decades. France is to put global biofuels production at the heart of the discussion.
Last week, a government spokesman told reporters after a French cabinet meeting that Paris “will push for a pause in the development of biofuels competing with food”.