Pressure mounts over side-effects of biofuel

Two new studies are due out soon on the failure of biofuels to cut carbon emissions. Studies find that taking the ILUC ( Indirect Land Use Change ) effects into account, biofuels – especially biodiesel – is often worse that fossil fuel, and if there are savings, they are small. The EU has assumed, for its road transport biofuel policies, that biofuels can help cut road transport carbon emissions by 60% by 2050. They cannot. One study says some biofuels are “so bad for the environment that its benefits cannot even be calculated.”  The other that the savings are small and will not deliver the carbon savings sought.


By Dave Keating  (European
Two reports suggest biofuel could do more harm than good.

The debate over whether biofuel does more environmental harm than good has reached boiling point in the European Commission – and two new studies are likely to raise the temperature further.

First report:

A report to be published later this month on the cost-effectiveness of policies to decarbonise transport concludes that without weeding out the biofuel that causes indirect land-use change (ILUC), the fuel source is so bad for the environment that its benefits cannot even be calculated.

“Most of the models predict a net increase of greenhouse gases when incorporating the ILUC effect for biodiesel,” says a draft of the report, written by a group of consultancies including CE Delft. “For these biofuels, determining the cost-effectiveness in terms of euros/tonne of carbon dioxide reduction makes no sense.”

The finding is embarrassing for the Commission, which in 2007 set a target of 10% of transport to be fuelled from renewable sources by 2020. Since then, evidence has mounted that some types of biofuel cause more emissions than they save because of the amount of land needed to grow them.

The Commission’s climate and energy departments are locked in a battle on the subject. The climate department wants biofuel to be given different weightings, so those types causing the most ILUC will count least towards meeting the 10% requirement in the renewable-energy directive. But the energy department, with support from the trade and agriculture departments, is resisting such a move.

A compromise was reached last year that would have put the ILUC issues in the fuel-quality directive, which obliges suppliers to reduce the greenhouse-gas intensity of their fuels by 6% by 2020. However, the deal fell apart in January. Because suppliers have to meet the targets of both the renewable-energy and fuel-quality directives, ILUC factors in either one would likely cause a collapse in business for those biofuel types thought to cause ILUC, such as biodiesel.

“In the last years, results from numerous studies present large discrepancies when addressing CO2 emissions of biofuels,” said Raffaello Garofalo, the secretary-general of the European Biodiesel Board.

“A legislative proposal based on inconclusive and disputable evidence could severally jeopardise the EU‘s ambitious targets to reduce its carbon footprint – and biodiesel is a large contributor to the member states’ national action plans to meet the 2020 targets,” he said.


Green groups are warning that the uncertainty over ILUC is causing policy confusion.

Second report:

Another consultancy report to be published in the coming weeks concludes that if biofuel’s lifecycle emissions, rather than just direct emissions, from ILUC are taken into account in the Commission’s transport white paper, the EU would achieve little more than half of its goal of reducing transport emissions by 60% by 2050.

The Commission declined to comment on what direct emissions-savings from biofuel compared to fossil fuels were assumed in the transport white paper, but an official involved in the discussions said it was around 50%. By comparison, an impact assessment on ILUC by the energy department leaked last autumn concluded that biofuel delivers a 21% savings with no action to mitigate the effects of ILUC.

As the proposal to deal with ILUC sits stalled in the Commission, environmental campaign groups are stepping up the pressure. “Biofuel from fuel crops will not help deliver the emissions cuts that are needed,” said Nusa Urbancic of green group Transport & Environment. “Politicians need to address ILUC in a robust way, so that there is investment certainty over which biofuels genuinely deliver climate benefits.”