EU continues search for biofuel 'green' criteria

Publish date: 12-02-2010
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Defining sustainability criteria for biofuels will be one of the first dossiers on the table of the newly appointed environment and energy commissioners, as persistent disagreements continue to divide the EU executive. A draft version of a European Commission communication on the EU's biofuel sustainability scheme was published by the Friends of the Earth, an environmental NGO, on its website .

The NGO said the document is highly controversial and failed to attract consensus during an inter-service consultation among the EU executive's different directorates-general (DGs).

However, a Commission spokesman denied that the paper had sparked any major internal controversy.

The document will now be finalised at the level of EU commissioners' cabinets. While it is expected to be presented in March, it may be delayed as the new Commission is due to be appointed only next week, and will first need to put together its various cabinets before tackling the dossier.

The draft, which dates from 2009, gives the EU executive's views on how member states and economic operators could implement fully-harmonised sustainability criteria and the Renewable Energy Directive's counting rules for biofuels in practice. It is accompanied by draft guidelines for calculating the amount of carbon dioxide trapped in soil.

Definition of land-use change

A large part of the debate has centred on land use and the impact on climate change when farming practices or crops are adjusted.According to the draft, land-use change should be understood to refer to changes in terms of land cover between forest, grassland, cropland, wetlands, settlements and perennial crops, including tree crop plantations. Switching from grassland to cropland is thus considered land-use change, while changing from one crop to another, such as from maize to rapeseed, is not.
Changes to land management, such as tillage practices or manure inputs, are not considered to be land-use change, acccording to the draft.

Land-related criteria

The draft notes that raw materials for biofuel should not be taken from land with a high biodiversity value, nor from land with high carbon stocks. However, it leaves some room for exceptions, provided that clear evidence is provided.Biofuels should not be grown from primary forests or continuously forested areas either, the draft says. But it notes that continuously forested areas "would normally include natural forest, forest plantations and other tree plantations such as oil palm" and that "a change from forest to oil palm plantation would not per se constitute a breach of the criterion".
Friends of the Earth immediately denounced this suggestion, stressing that the expansion of palm oil plantations is a major cause of tropical rainforest destruction and that palm plantations should not be defined as forests.

In December 2009, a group of biofuel-producing nations, including signatories from Brazil, Argentina and Indonesia, questioned the EU executive's quest for a methodology to account for greenhouse gas emissions resulting from converting forests or farmland into energy crops. Any EU regulation on the issue could impact upon their export products, they argued.

Checking compliance

The draft proposes to let manufacturers choose between three methods to notify member states of their compliance with sustainability criteria. These include:
• A national system, which all member states need to put in place;
• a 'voluntary scheme' defined by the Commission, and;
• bilateral or multilateral agreements defined by the Commission.

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