Are Biofuels Really Environmentally Friendly?

on May 9, 2012

Senior European Union officials failed to agree on measurement standards for the environmental impact of crop-based biofuels, prolonging uncertainty in a debate that threatens to affect Europe’s biodiesel industry. In the debate last week, the European Commission (EC) attempted to finalise the standards in regards to a new method of accounting for indirect land use change (ILUC).The talks followed warnings from scientists that this method has the potential to increase greenhouse gas emissions and raise food prices, doing nothing to prevent climate change, but actually accelerating it.

Indirect land-use change accounts for the diverting offood-crops into fuel tanks. This method has been estimated toincrease overall global demand for agricultural land and raise the amount of greenhouse gas emissions which are being released throughclearing of previously uncultivated land, such as forests, toaccommodate food crops.Studies conducted for the EC show that the risk of ILUC is greater for biodiesel typically made from oilseeds than it is for bioethanol, usually made from sugarand grains.Yet they are both related to additional carbon emissions released into the atmosphere. And while environmentalists call for including the ILUC factors in the biofuel standards, there is another aspect of the debate – the industry concerns.

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The other side of the coin is thatincludingthe ILUC factors in the EU biofuel standards could kill off much of Europe’s estimated €13 billion biodiesel industry.Biodiesel producers claim that there is significant uncertainty in the assumptions used to determine ILUC carbon emissions to justify immediate action, and that any rules should be postponed for several years giving producers more time to recoup their investment costs and switch production.

!m[](/uploads/story/83/thumbs/pic1_inline.png)The European Commissionwas expected to draw up guidelines for the biofuel industry by this summer, but the internal decision-making process quickly became paralysed by an ongoing dispute between the Commission’s energy directorate, which does not want ILUC factors considered, and its climate directorate, which does. The 27 EU commissioners had been expected to choose between three main policy options at the meeting last week, but they failed to endorse any of them.

The first policy option the EU commissionersare debating is from 2016 all biofuels to be forced to save 60 per cent oncarbon emissions compared tofossil fuels, which is a rise of 25 per cent of the current requirement. The second policy option, backed by the Climate Commission, would introduce ILUC factors for individual crops, along with incentives for second generation biofuels, which are made from agricultural waste, algae, or residues and are considered less carbon intensive. The third policy option combines elements of both approaches — the emission savings threshold would be raised to 60 percent, while an ILUC emission penalty for bioethanol and a higher one for biodiesel would be added to the fuel quality law.

AnEC decision is now expected before the end of the year, but the wait leaves the biofuel industry uncertain as to the future of their field.Clare Wenner, head of renewable transport at the Renewable Energy Association (REA), said that the European Commission had to make a decision as soon as possible, so the industry could get on with the business of decarbonising the transport sector.


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