Disclaimer: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s).

The false assumptions that have been linked to the use of biofuels in earlier EU policies are not just limited to biofuels but to bioenergy, writes Sini Eräjää.

Sini Eräjää is EU bioenergy policy officer at BirdLife Europe and the European Environmental Bureau.

New legislation endorsed by the European Parliament to cut the use of food based biofuels marks a milestone.

It closes the long debate on how we can minimise the negative environmental and social impacts, and increased greenhouse gas emissions, arising from biofuel use. It also demonstrates awareness from European institutions that measures intended to fight climate change can result in exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to achieve if we turn a blind eye to wider impacts.

What this new legislation doesn’t mark is a closing of the bigger debate on the role of bioenergy and its general impacts.

The deal on indirect land use change (ILUC) and biofuels that was sealed today puts a 7% cap on the amount of food based biofuels that can be counted towards the 10% target for renewables in the transport sector.

The problem behind these types of biofuels is that they use up valuable and limited land resources that could otherwise serve for various other uses. Unlike what was envisioned by many in the early days, biofuels did not end up being grown on “marginal” or “unused” land but was instead grown on prime agricultural land, creating additional pressures on top of the many other growing needs for land.

All this has led to numerous problems and has expanded Europe’s already unsustainably large ecological footprint on the globe; meaning that energy production has displaced food production and has led to clearing of new land elsewhere thereby causing increased GHG emissions from land use and changes in land use.

Even if the policy focus was on food crops, these are not issues linked food and feed crops only but also to other so called energy crops for example switchgrass or willow when grown for energy on agricultural land.

The logic is not that different in the case of forests, currently the biggest source of bioenergy in the EU. Increased demand for wood by the energy sector has come on top of other growing demands and is leading to increased logging, expansion of logging in new areas, and displacement of some current uses of wood.

This means diminishing carbon stocks of forests and increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased imports of wood products from other parts of the world, and a range of other potential negative indirect impacts.

Bioenergy is therefore far from carbon neutral. It is now clear, from a variety of studies that diverting to energy use biomass that would have otherwise been used for food or material is just shifting the carbon around without reducing net emissions.

Clearing land for additional harvesting of existing carbon stocks only leads to net emissions.

Sticking to biomass resources which do not cause more demand for land or forests therefore seems the only more sustainable option. This implies focusing on waste and residues - biomass we are already harvesting but the energy of which is currently being wasted and for which no other use is available.

This kind of genuinely sustainable bioenergy can be part of EU’s renewable energy mix, but it’s becoming more apparent that the amount of residue from agriculture, forestry and industrial process that are not already used for energy will not be enough to meet our projected bioenergy demand.

Therefore, the false assumptions that have been linked to the use of biofuels in earlier EU policies are not just limited to biofuels. They apply to bioenergy altogether. This is why ten NGO groups just published some strong recommendations on how to deal with bioenergy in the new post 2020 climate and energy framework while taking serious note of the lessons learned from the policies so far.

The key recommendations are to;

  • Introduce a cap to limit the use of biomass for energy, to stay within the limits of the planet and conform to the amount of sustainable biomass resources we have available;
  • Ensure efficient and optimal use of biomass resources, in line with the principle of cascading use, meaning priority to material uses before energy recovery;
  • Include correct carbon accounting for biomass to ensure that real emission savings are not only achieved on paper;
  • Introduce comprehensive and binding sustainability criteria for all biomass used as an energy source.

Neither the EU’s policies nor the global climate can afford another failed effort to tackle climate change. This is why it’s time for the Commission to roll up its sleeves and propose a new policy on all bioenergy that follows these recommendations.