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European Parliament votes to limit crop-based biofuels

The European Union Parliament voted today to limit Europe’s use of biofuels based on crops such as palm oil and soya beans, years after scientists pointed out that making fuel from food crops can do more harm than good to the environment.

The vote shows that politicians want to slow the use of conventional crop-based biofuels, after a decade of encouraging their expansion.

But what was agreed in Brussels did not go far enough to satisfy campaigners concerned about the environmental and ethical impacts of crop-based fuel. It is also far from being final legislation: after tense negotiations, another Parliamentary vote will be needed, if — as is almost certain — ministers from Europe’s member states quibble with the new policy.

The European biofuels industry has thrived since 2003, driven by laws that now demand that the carbon footprint of Europe’s transport fuel drop by 6% by 2020, and that renewable energy make up 10% of its transport sector. But by 2008, researchers had realized that food-based fuel wasn’t as green as supposed.

Many varieties of biodiesel, Europe’s dominant biofuel, produce more emissions than fossil fuels, because when agricultural land is used to plant biofuel crops, fresh land elsewhere is ploughed up to plant more food. This leads to forest destruction and carbon emissions, as well as land-grabs and the displacement of indigenous peoples.

After much debate about the consequences of this ‘indirect land-use change’ (iLUC), and pressure from industry, farming and energy lobbies, the European Commission proposed in 2012 that food-crop fuel quotas be capped at only 5% of transport fuel by 2020, effectively allowing existing biofuel facilities to continue recouping investment, but stopping further expansion.

Parliament today voted to loosen that cap to 6%, allowing some expansion up to 2020. (The cap now also includes energy crops such as jatropha). It set a separate 2.5% target to incentivize ‘second-generation’ biofuels, made from waste products such as corn stover. And from 2020, politicians agreed, iLUC factors will be used in accounting for a fuel’s carbon footprint — meaning that fuel suppliers can use biodiesel if they wish, but that it won’t contribute to the carbon reductions they need. That is a blow for trade groups such as the Renewables Energy Association in London, which has argued that the science of ILUC factors is too uncertain to be incorporated into policy-making.

Lobbying in the past weeks has been intense, with three new studies from the Joint Research Centre (JRC) in Brussels — which conducts research for EU policy-makers — sent around politicians just before the vote. They showed that food-crop biofuels lead to higher food prices, and confirmed the JRC’s earlier iLUC calculations.

The new policy cannot become law until energy ministers from Europe’s member states agree on their version of the legislation. Some want looser caps on food-crop fuels; others, tighter. Usually, Parliament’s lead negotiator, which on this issue is Corinne LePage, would enter into discussion with the Council of Ministers. But at the last moment, LePage’s authority was blocked by the centre-right European People’s Party. Under complicated EU rules, this means that unless the Council agrees exactly, another Parliamentary vote must be taken. There is a deadline looming: new politicians will enter parliament — essentially resetting the negotiations — after European elections in May 2014.

“Until an agreement is reached, it is uncertain for investors and the environment what the future of biofuels will be,” says Nusa Urbancic, of the campaigning non-governmental organization Transport and Environment, based in Brussels. “What is certain though is that Europeans will have to keep paying for another seven years for biofuels that pollute more than the fossil fuels they are supposed to replace,” she says.

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