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Biofuels on the Brink in Europe

Leon Kaye | Monday May 7th, 2012 | 2 Comments
biofuels, europe, european union, EU, bioethanol, leon kaye, biodiesel, palm oil, renewable energy, ILUC, indirect land use change

EU Energy Department HQ, Brussels (Leon Kaye)

Are biofuels about to become irrelevant in Europe? It is not just austerity on the decline throughout Europe with France’s Nicolas Sarkozy another leader down as of yesterday. While Europeans are rethinking their countries’ austere budgets, European Union officials in Brussels are also doubting the efficacy of biofuels.

Biofuels have become a lynchpin in the European Union’s long-term energy strategy. As Europe lurches towards a goal of 20 percent of its total energy requirements by 2020, biofuels are an important part of that goal. Another EU directive mandates that 10 percent of transport fuel comes from renewable energy sources. But “renewable” has become a loaded word when it comes to biofuels because of the effects they have on land where they are grown as well as their resulting emissions.

At issue is the concept of indirect land use change (ILUC). ILUC theory dictates that by converting farms for food into land grown for biofuel crops, such production increases an overall demand for additional land for farming. If farmers therefore cut down trees or drain wetlands, the results would be the release of millions of tons of carbon emissions that would otherwise be sequestered in peat bogs and forests. Studies the EU commissioned suggest that the risk of ILUC is higher for biodiesel, often made from oilseeds, than for bioethanol, manufactured out of sugar or grain. Meanwhile there is talk in Brussels over whether biodiesel is really better for the environment than conventional diesel, though some experts argue that plants grown for biodiesel’s production offsets any carbon emissions from biofuels.

The result has been reported infighting between the EU’s Climate Commission, which supports the move to include ILUC emissions in the overall emissions count of crops used to produce biofuels. The Energy Department, however, opposes such a rule. Naturally the biofuels industry, worth approximately $17 billion in Europe, is against such a change because such a shift could drastically affect its business. Farmers, generally a powerful lobby throughout Europe, could see their bottom line take a hit as well.

In trying to find a compromise, the EU is considering three options on which to decide by the end of this summer. One option is to require all biofuel options to prove 60 percent emission savings compared to conventional fuels by 2016–which would most likely allow for the continued domestic production of biofuels in Europe but could halt imports of fuels derived from palm and soybean oils. Another consideration would be to include ILUC in the carbon emissions of all biofuels, which biofuel industry leaders insist would kill the entire market. The final option would be a hybrid of both policies, which would favor the production of bioethanol, but could prove problematic as most road transport in Europe is fueled by diesel.

And the global food versus biofuels debate continues, with few attractive alternatives on the table.

Leon Kaye, based in California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo of the EU’s Energy Department offices in Brussels courtesy Leon Kaye.


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  • falga

    Indirect Land Use is a very complicated concept as it is predicated on the fact that biodiesel demand for example has an impact not only on price but on higher land use in different parts of the world.  This is certainly the fact for Soy since oil content is less than 19% while on Rapeseed it is close to 42%.  If ILUC is such a huge problem because of biofuels then we should require the use of crops that use the least land and the highest oil… that brings us closer to Palm oil which is not where most of these politicians wanted to be since it takes the least land use to produce vegoil.  Oh, but that cannot be…  In any case, this is strictly the battle of rapeseed and soy underway and it looks like Soy will lose.   Now the real question that will be come up is: What about the indirect impact of high oil prices in Soya that actually in the last few years has made cheap protein available to the world since 80% of the soy is protein?

  • J. Sedricks

    Although Palm oil has high yield, it has by far the highest land use change emissions of any biofuel crop, because tropical peat forest is drained to make about half of new oil-palm plantations. (look at the “wetlands” website). That releases vast quantities of carbon as the peat decomposes.

    But of course using any vegetable oil for biofuel increases the demand for all of them (as food and oleochemicals industry switch from one oil to another), so the huge emissions from palm-oil also occur to some extent as a result of using soy or rapeseed oil.

    Finally, the calculation of ILUC of course takes into account the by-products from the oil (like soy bean meal), so it is not a simple question of the oi yield per hectare.