France is set to ignore EU limits on bad biofuels

By Faustine Bas-Defossez, Senior Policy Officer, Agriculture and Bioenergy, EEB

All eyes will be on finding solutions to fight climate change in the run up to COP21 in Paris later this year. So it is simply astonishing to see that France, the country hosting the summit, is not only ignoring an important political decision that it helped negotiate, but is also ignoring sound scientific evidence on the negative impacts of some biofuels on the climate, people and the environment.

It took seven years of intense negotiations and political wrangling for the European Union to officially recognise the well-documented damaging impacts of land-based biofuels before they reduced their share within renewable energy targets from 10% to 7%. This sent an important message: first generation biofuels are not to play a significant role in Europe’s future transport policy. But these seven years of delays and negotiations have been bad for everyone, industry included, as investments to support the development of new truly sustainable technologies were frozen over this period.

Now that the EU is slowly setting the scene for post 2030, and has made it clear in its communications that no support should go towards food-based biofuels, it is worrying to see that some Member States are moving ahead with national 2030 targets and including higher shares for biofuels. Indeed, France adopted a law this summer that sets a 15% target for biofuels in transport by 2030. As the share of advanced biofuels (non-land based – waste-based biofuels) will very unlikely reach 7% in 2030, this means that France intends to go beyond the EU 7% cap post 2020.

Why is it that such an important political decision as the cap and lessons from the past are now being seemingly ignored by some Member States? And France is not alone as Italy and Finland also seem willing to go far beyond 7% post 2020, and others may follow their lead.

By doing this, France has set a very poor example to other European member states and the world: the country due to lead a new global climate agreement in Paris this December is ignoring past mistakes and striking a blow to investments for true solutions to help mitigate climate change.


Photo credit: Rapeseed field in France (c) Smoofle, Flickr Creative Commons

0 thoughts on “France is set to ignore EU limits on bad biofuels

  1. The one ignoring sound scientific evidence is actually Mr Bas-Defossez. It is true that some of the firts generation biofuels are not all good, but much of the first generation is actually both better, more abundant and much less expensive than second generation. E.g. the ethanol produced by the Swedish company Agroethanol reduces CO2-emissions with 90 % or more. No second generation fuel is in the vicinity of such figures. This standard can be met by all first generation producers of ethanol and biogas with very little investment, taking good care of the byproducts, including the stream of green CO2 coming out of the plant. (This CO2 could also easily be sequestrated (done in the US) and thus not only reducing the harm, but actually improving the state.

    According to Eurostat, 30 Million hectars farmland have been abandoned within the EU ince 1990. this corresponds to 15 %. The abandonnement is continuing as there is no demand for even more food in the world. We are already over-feeding the world, producing twice as many calories as the world population need. The abandoned land is mainly marginal land with huge biodiversity values. About half of the threatened species in Europe are dependent on this kind of land. Abandoning of farming is actually the largest threat towards European biodiversity today, and it is a shame that the EP has pushed for further abandonnement of this valuable resource and that a respectable bureau as EEB is ignoring this fact.

    Furthermore – with possible peak oil or peak phosphor upcoming, it might come a need for this farmland once again. Hence it is wise to maintain the soil status and not allow this land to be planted and irreversible turned into soils that are not apt for agriculture.

  2. Dear Mr. Ericson,
    Thank you for your comments and we’re happy to hear you share our views on how food security should be put into a wider context; that the issue is not about producing more, but producing better (i.e. taking into account ecological practices, reducing food waste etc.).
    We do differ on the land available for bioenergy crops in general and lack your optimism. We’ve actually commissioned a study which found it is very hard to quantify available land in Europe. The amount of abandoned farmland is closer to 1.3 million hectares rather than 30 million, corresponding to less than 1% of the energy needs of the transport sector. Much of this land is also hardly accessible, divided into small patches and of little interest from an economic perspective for farming.
    [link available here]
    On biodiversity in EU farmland, we are not just talking about abandonment but also about intensification. Even if abandonment is taking place, when extra incentives for bioenergy are being put in place we tend to see the conversion of grasslands to arable land (e.g. in Germany this has happened on a big scale, where even within Natura 2000 sites land has been converted to maize for biogas production) or an intensification of existing agricultural land. So instead of patches of land being found to be un-economical then being taken back into production for bioenergy crops, we’re either seeing a conversion of our most biodiverse land or a switch between food and fuel crops. Adding a massive amount of demand for bioenergy to this will only make the problem worse.

    In France, the case under discussion here, the fleets are mostly biodiesel, the first generation of which comes from rapeseed biofuels. The best available science says this is actually worse for the climate than the fossil fuels they replace.

    Thank you again for your input and we look forward to continuing the discussion as this story progresses.

    Finlay Duncan
    Communications & Media Officer, BirdLife International

    1. Dear Mr Duncan,

      It is an indisputable fact that 30 Million hectar farmland has been abandoned only since 1990. Statistics comes Eurostat and is based on the EU agricultural support scheme, where every single parcel is measured by the accuracy of 0.1 hectar, The figures are also supported by independent research, (e.g. Zeddies et al 2012). Furthermore – a large proportion of the farmland officially used, is actually only used for growing grass which is then let to rot after harvest. In Sweden alone there is 800,000 hectars of this kind of land. This corresponds to 34 % of the farmland.

      It is true that the situation is uneven, with small patches actually suffering from intensification, e.g. the Paris basin, parts of UK and the Netherlands. The large picture is however abandonnement, wich means a huge loss of biodiversity.

      As there is no need for additional food production and as this farmland is taken out of production precisely of the reason that it cannot compete by producing food, an additional crop – like biofuels would make it possible for many of these farms to continue – thus maintaining the biodiversity and maintaining the soil status for possible future needs. Furthermore crops used for ethanol and biogas do not need to be rich in protein, nor to be free from weeds – thus needing both less fertilizers and pesticides – and at the same time improve the living conditions for insects, birds, and rare herbs.

      Currently the best biodiesel made from rapeseed reduces CO2 with 60 % (e.g. Perstorp in Sweden produce this quality), and 70 % reduction is within reach, with additional effort. This is on par with many of the second generation fuels and of course much better than oil. A byproduct of rapeseed biofuel is also fudder, which reduces the need for soymeal from rainforest clearances in South America.

      So there are many reasons to continue using and improving biofuels. Rejecting them and instead using oil, is the worst we can do – then we have no developed system for using them once peak oil hits us and we have lost the soils we may need once peak phosphorus or peak fertilizers hits us.

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