The EU’s “restrictive” approach to biofuels sustainability criteria will harm producers’ ability to meet increased demand for green fuels coming from the transport sector, says Henna Virkkunen, a Finnish lawmaker in the European Parliament.
Speaking at a policy roundtable last week, Virkkunen criticised the European Commission’s ‘Fit for 55’ package of climate legislation tabled in July this year, saying it lacks coherence.
“One clear example of inconsistency in the Fit-for-55 package is the increasing demand for biofuel on one hand, while on the other hand the sustainability criteria for biofuels is becoming more restrictive,” she said.
The climate legislation, released on 14 July, aims to reduce carbon emissions across the bloc by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.
“This does not help the EU to deliver on its high ambition since there is no coherence between the different elements of the package,” Virkkunen told participants at the event organised by the European Biodiesel Board (EBB), an industry group.
Virkkunen argued that EU climate legislation should provide “regulatory certainty and a long-term investment perspective” to industry and called for the EU to take a technology-neutral approach to cut emissions.
Brussels has set a 7% limit on the quantity of crop-based biofuels used in the transport sector. Member states also cannot go beyond a 1% point increase compared to the 2020 national share of these fuels in rail and road transport – so if the consumption in 2020 was 4%, the country could not surpass 5% this year.
The Commission additionally adopted a delegated act that gives biofuels feedstock a percentage score based on their contribution to indirect land-use change (ILUC) – the phenomenon in which farmers, particularly in developing countries, opt to grow lucrative biofuel crops rather than food.
This pivot to biofuels, in theory, means that more land must be cleared for agriculture, increasing emissions.
Only palm oil, which has a percentage score of 45% for land expansion, has been effectively banned as a transport fuel in the EU. However, green activists have become increasingly critical of soybeans, which has a score of 8% (rapeseed, by contrast, has a 1% score).
EU-approved sustainable fuel sources, known as advanced biofuels, are spelt out in Annex IX of the Renewable Energy Directive and include biofuels made from agricultural waste or used-cooking oil.
The European Commission may add to this list of approved feedstocks based on scientific advice, but it may not remove items. Currently, recognised feedstocks include waste items such as animal manure, sewage sludge, and straw.
“The list of crops suitable for biofuels should be kept as wide as possible,” Virkkunen told EURACTIV by email. “At least the current already narrow list should not be cut down any further,” she added, arguing that the EU needs to use “all available means” to reduce transport emissions rapidly.
“Biofuels and electrification [of transport] should not be seen as opposing but rather as complementary ways to deliver on the Green Deal promises,” she added.
Nils Torvalds, MEP with the centrist Renew Europe grouping, expressed similar concerns over legislation inhibiting the EU’s ability to meet the demand for biofuels.
“The [Fit for 55] package does recognise the need to increase the use of biofuels to meet the climate targets. However, I share the worry of Henna Virkkunen when it comes to realistically achieving the increased need for biofuels, if we at the same time make the production of biofuels more restrictive, through the sustainability criteria,” the Finnish MEP told EURACTIV.
“At the end of the day, me and my colleagues in the European Parliament all have the responsibility to propose solutions, which actually bring us to the climate targets. Not just preach for a perfect tomorrow, while hoping for a miracle to solve it for us in the end,” he added.
Aviation and maritime
Under EU proposals, biofuels derived from food-and-feed crops would not be eligible to meet green jet fuel targets.
“For sustainability reasons, first-generation biofuels such as feed and food crop-based biofuels, which have limited scalability potential and raise sustainability concerns, should not be supported,” states the ReFuelEU Aviation proposal, which aims to cut plane emissions.
Instead, sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) will be composed solely of advanced biofuels and electro-fuels.
While not an outright ban, the proposed FuelEU maritime proposal, which seeks to make maritime activities greener, also inhibits the use of crop-based biofuels.
This seeming discrepancy – that the EU allows first-generation biofuels as a means to decarbonise road transport but limits their use for aviation and shipping – was criticised by EBB. They argue that a single sustainability criterion should apply to crop-based biofuels regardless of which transport mode they are used for.
“Biodiesel must have a role to play in the transition towards climate-neutral transports,” said Xavier Noyon, the secretary-general of EBB.
“While revising its policy and legal framework, the EU should really look into all available options, consider their limits as well as their potential, and put in place the right framework to meet the EU’s decarbonisation targets,” he added in a statement.
However, any relaxation of sustainability criteria would be “nonsensical”, according to Alex Mason, a senior policy officer with global conservation group WWF, who said doing so would harm rather than help the climate.
Instead, Mason argued that investment should go towards synthetic low carbon fuels produced from green hydrogen.
“In fact, the current [sustainability] rules aren’t nearly restrictive enough – we should exclude food and feed-based biofuels from the Renewable Energy Directive altogether,” he told EURACTIV.