MEPs voted 43-26 in favour of a 5.5% cap on European support for biofuels, as new research showed that growing fuel crops in place of food creates more hunger and deforestation.
The vote was on whether to endorse a strict cap on crop-based biofuels, to curb emissions from ‘indirect land use change’ (ILUC) caused by, for example, the clearing of forest to grow palms for oil.
Lobbying is fierce on all sides of the argument, as parts of the biofuels industry that have invested billions in securing first and second generation biofuel sources, now found to be harmful, fight to preserve the status quo. But other parts are in favour of the move and want it tightening further.
On the side against the cap are MPs in Humberside and East Yorkshire, where some of these companies are based, who are backing a campaign by the biofuel industry trade organisation, the Renewable Energy Association (REA). REA's head of renewable transport, Clare Wenner, argued: “If it was mandatory for all land-using industries to account for emissions from the direct conversion of land from one use to another, as the biofuels industry does already, then there would be no such thing as indirect land use change."
But new research throws up an additional problem: when agricultural land that has been used to grow food is converted to biofuels, food prices will go up causing some people to go hungry unless previously uncultivated land is made productive.
The research, by Princeton University researcher Timothy Searchinger (known as ‘the godfather of ILUC’), says, in his words: "Biofuels have almost doubled the rate of growth in demand for food, and the system is having a hard time keeping up. If demand growth stopped, prices would come down as farmers caught up, although their efforts to catch up will cause more land use change."
His latest analysis, produced with the help of the EU’s Joint Research Centre, of a report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), found that of every 100 calories from wheat or maize diverted to food tanks by bioethanol production, 25 calories were not replaced.
The European Renewable Ethanol Association, is also against the cap. "I wouldn’t expect anything good to come out of Searchinger,” said Rob Vierhout, its secretary-general. “Whatever he says, he is biased. He is not even a scientist. He is a lawyer and could defend any position you want him to.”
In a previous life, Searchinger was an attorney for the Environmental Defence Fund, and wrote a prize-winning book on wetlands that led work to protect the Everglades and Mississippi river.
Another lobby group, composed of the chief executive officers of leading European biofuel producers and European airlines, called 'The Leaders of Sustainable Biofuels', is in favour of the cap and wants to ensure the market uptake of advanced sustainable biofuels by all transport sectors.
It issued a statement supporting EU policy to gradually phase in less harmful third generation biofuels and supporting the ILUC principle.
But it foresees a further threat lurking in a proposed extended list of feedstock that would be eligible for support as advanced biofuels, namely the use of animal fats and used cooking oil, palm oil residue/waste and any other food feedstock waste.
It says that were used palm oil to be supported in this way, it would be "absurd and counter-productive to the objectives of this legislation".
The long list of feedstock eligible for advanced biofuels, prepared by the EU Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE), includes a number of disputable raw materials which should, this group says, therefore be excluded from the definition because it would once more "open the door to unsustainable biofuels production from food and feed crops".
Looking forward, 2020 marks the deadline for 10% of EU's transport fuels to be sourced from renewable energies. Before then, by 1 July 2014, all new biofuels installations must meet a 60% greenhouse gas saving threshold and, by 1 December 2017, all biofuels installations in operation before 1 July 2014 must meet a greenhouse gas saving threshold of 35% and 50% a year later.
By the end of 2017, the Commission will submit a review of policy and best scientific evidence on ILUC to the European Parliament and Council.
After 2020, the European Commission will not support further subsidies to biofuels unless they can demonstrate "substantial greenhouse gas savings".