European biofuels vote: EFI looks at implications for European forest sector

On September 11, 2013 the European Parliament (EP) voted to limit the use of biofuels made from food crops. The EP agreed on proposals to limit the amount of "first-generation" biofuels from agriculture crops used in transport fuel by 2020. The cap was set at 6%, lower than the biofuels industries pushed for, and higher than the environmental lobbies wanted. Europe’s target is that by 2020, 10% of transport energy has to come from renewable sources.

In the background were fears that biofuel production could push up food prices or damage the climate. At the heart of the issues are perceived indirect land use changes (ILUC). Some scientific evidence indicates that ILUC impacts may make biofuels even more harmful to the climate than conventional fossil fuels. Biofuels, such as ethanol made from sugar or biodiesel from rapeseed, were originally intended to reduce transport carbon emissions and cut Europe's dependence on imported oil. However, there has been a particular concern that European biodiesel is also based on palm oil imported from countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, where its production may cause land use changes and negative impacts to carbon dioxide (CO2) balance. For example, clearing land to plant oil palms for biofuel releases CO2 through ploughing and can cause deforestation, which reduces the forest "carbon sinks".

It should be stressed that the EP vote did not yet conclude the issue, and no legislation has yet been accepted. The EP demanded further talks about the rules before opening negotiations with EU countries to finalise the legislation. It is also unclear when the final decision can be made, and the talks on the proposals could extend into next year. In fact, if they are not concluded by April 2014, European Parliament elections scheduled for the following month could even push back the law until 2015.

The ILUC and CO2 impacts of biofuels production are a very many-sided and complex issue. For example, as a recent EFI study states (Muys et al. 2013), bioenergy (including biofuels) from woody biomass is not a single entity, but hides a large variety of sources and qualities, conversion technologies, end products, and markets. As a consequence, the technological and economic efficiencies as well as the carbon impacts will vary greatly. Moreover, it seems that if accompanied by a package of measures to promote cascading and energy efficiency, and to ensure biodiversity safeguards and positive carbon balance, the biofuel production based on forest biomass can make economic and environmental sense in many cases.

More information

A recent publication, Sustainable wood mobilization for EU renewable energy targets, by Bart Muys, Lauri Hetemäki (Head of EFI’s Foresight and Policy Support Programme), and Marc Palahi (EFI’s Deputy Director) discusses these issues in more detail.

Muys, B., Hetemäki, L. and Palahi, M. (2013), Sustainable wood mobilization for EU renewable energy targets. Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining, 7: 359–360.

EFI’s ThinkForest seminar at the European Parliament in April 2013 discussed the opportunities and challenges in meeting renewable energy targets from forest biomass with a wide variety of stakeholders. It concluded that forest biomass is key to meet EU renewable energy targets, and that forest bioenergy development offers good opportunities to mobilize the production potential of European forests and to contribute to a more climate friendly bio-based economy.

ThinkForest seminar: Opportunities and challenges in meeting renewable energy targets from forest biomass ‐ an EU perspective

Photo: Sophia Winters - Fotolia.com

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