Fuel and Transport

MEPs need to address the environmental, economic and social impacts of indirect land use change, argues Kriton Arsenis

The European commission’s long-awaited proposal addressing the impacts of indirect land use change related to the use of biofuels in the EU is finally under the legislative procedure. The proposal amends two key directives of the EU climate policy, namely the renewable energy directive (RED) and the fuel quality directive, and constitutes an historic opportunity for the EU to tackle what has been the most sensitive issue concerning the use of biofuels for years now, and to ensure that emission savings from the use of biofuels are real.

For this to be done one should examine the whole life cycle of biofuel production, including production inputs such as fertilisers, pesticides, harvesting technology, machinery and electricity, as well as the land use changes which occur. It only seems logical to claim that when a forested area is deforested with the purpose of producing biofuels, the emissions generated should be taken into account.

It is true however that the expansion of biofuels can also result in so-called indirect land use changes. These occur when the increased demand for biofuels displaces agricultural activities and exerts pressure on the land. Due to the growing population and the increasing need for food, agricultural land previously used for food production is now often displaced in fragile ecosystems, such as peatlands, forests and grasslands. This results in substantial losses of biodiversity and increased greenhouse gas emissions, as well as land-grabbing incidents, the negatives of which we wholly need to take into account.

The expansion of biofuels is a clear example involving conservation and development trade-offs. On the one hand, biofuels may generate cleaner energy compared to fossil fuels and thus contribute less towards global warming. On the other hand, enhancing the areas planted with crops suitable for biofuel production could displace other agricultural activities and increase the pressure on carbon rich areas. It is therefore evident that the European parliament should take a balanced approach and address all three aspects of the issue, the environmental, the economic and the social.

The current EU policy mandates and promotes the use of biofuels in the EU through the 10 per cent RED target, based upon which renewable sources’ stake in transport should be at least 10 per cent by 2020. This induced increase in demand for biofuels has exponentially increased EU imports of vegetable oils used in biofuel production, such as palm oil and rapeseed, particularly from rich forested developing countries like Malaysia or Indonesia. For such a target to work, we should, however, first make sure that biofuels are a clean source of energy and, if not, we should make a clear distinction between good and bad biofuels. This proposal is our chance to do so, and the European parliament should not miss it. The world is watching.

Kriton Arsenis is parliament's S&D group shadow rapporteur for greenhouse gas emissions and removals resulting from activities related to land use, land use change and forestry; ccounting rules and action plans

Article published in THE PARLIAMENT MAGAZINE