Biofuels Must Be Made Sustainably, Says European Commission

Palm Oil Plantation
Palm oil plantation in Brunei.
Photo by Jeremy Higgs via Flickr

The European Commission is developing legislation that will require minimum sustainability standards for biofuels development, European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said at the recent International Biofuels Conference in Brussels, Belgium, on July 5–6. As part of its ongoing energy strategy, the European Union (EU) has agreed on an action plan to have biofuels comprise at least 10 percent of the region’s transport fuel use by 2020. “It is, of course, essential to ensure that this increase is fulfilled in a sustainable way; we cannot just sit back and assume this will happen automatically,” Piebalgs said.

Current trends indicate that 60 percent of the increase in carbon dioxide emissions in the EU between 2005 and 2020 will come from transport, according to Piebalgs. Emphasizing that, “biofuels are not the panacea for all our energy problems,” he noted that the renewable fuels—primarily biodiesel and ethanol—can help tackle climate change and other environmental challenges, but only if developed correctly. “Most biofuels deliver solid greenhouse gas savings—but there exist inefficient production techniques that do not,” Pieblags said. “The use of these production techniques must be avoided.”

The directive currently under development will give legal backing to the 10-percent goal for biofuels and will include a set of minimum sustainability standards. Only biofuels that meet these standards will count toward the 10-percent target and be eligible for EU tax exemptions. The rules will apply equally to imports as well as to biofuels produced domestically. Debate continues within the EU on what the sustainability standards should include, particularly on issues such as bringing new land into cultivation and developing “second-generation” biofuels that can be derived from straw, organic waste, and woody material.

Worldwatch Institute biofuels expert Raya Widenoja applauds the Commission’s embrace of caution in pursuing its biofuels targets. “It is very encouraging that the EU is recognizing not only the important role these fuels can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also that not all biofuels are created equal,” she says. If feedstock and production processes are not examined carefully, Widenoja notes, biofuels can do more environmental harm than good. She points to the example of palm oil production in Southeast Asia, which has increased due in part to rising European demand for biodiesel, but is also accelerating the destruction of virgin tropical forests.

According to Piebalgs, the European Commission’s biofuels directive will be ready by the end of 2007. The legislation is part of a larger EU push to have renewable energy sources account for 20 percent of the region’s energy market by 2020. After the draft directive is completed, it will be passed on to the European Council and Parliament for a final decision, Piebalgs said.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.