Monday, 9 September 2013
But what I'll be watching most closely is Wednesday's vote on what has been an enormously emotional issue – proposed new restrictions on biofuel in the EU.
When the EU devised its renewable energy legislation in 2008, biofuels were still in their relative infancy but were meant to be a savoir for weaning transport off of fossil fuel. The legislation required that by 2020, 10% of transport fuel would have to come from renewable sources, i.e. biofuels. But even then there were concerns within the Commission about the wisdom of this policy. What if the EU law created a rush for biofuel that caused food shortages by turning food to fuel? Or, more frustratingly, what if the process of clearing new land to make room for growing the biofuel crops actually caused more emissions than the biofuels abate?
At the time the science looking at this issue was unclear. So the commission went ahead with the legislation, but included a caveat that within a few years the EU would have to revisit the legislation to take account of any ‘indirect land use change' (ILUC) that is displacing food or increasing emissions, if any exists.
That brings us to where we are today. After three years of mounting evidence of the harm being caused by some biofuels, the Commission proposed last year to take account of ‘ILUC' in EU fuel legislation. The proposal would mandate that only half of the 10% renewable fuel target can be met using so-called ‘first-generation' biofuels, a set list of crops thought to cause ILUC or displace food. It would also require fuel providers to monitor and record the ILUC caused by their biofuels.
But this has prompted howls of protest from the nascent biofuels industry, who fear that with one vote the companies that they have built from scratch over the past five years will collapse. The subject has, therefore, been emotional. At a biofuel debate organised in the European Parliament last Wednesday (4 September), this was on full display. The conversation has tended to be so emotive that the moderator felt compelled at the start to ask people to refrain from name-calling or personal attacks.
Those in favour of the proposal say they are sympathetic to the biofuel industry's concerns, but that the legislation should motivate them to switch to making new second-generation biofuels that don't cause ILUC now, before it is too late. The end of a business that is causing harm shouldn't be avoided just because it would end a business, they argue.
The food issue and displacement of rural communities has been particularly emotive. Representatives of rural communities in Indonesia and Brazil have been meeting with MEPs over the past several months with horrific stories of what the land-clearing resulting from the rush for biofuel is doing to their communities. There have also been experts blaming recent food shortages in Africa on the biofuel rush.
One side is pointing at the biofiels sector and saying they are driving people from their homes in one end of the world and causing starvation in another. The other side is pointing at the campaigners and saying they are using bad and incomplete science to work up a hysteria that will kill a nascent industry that is essential for combating climate change.
So tonight's debate in the plenary chamber promises to contain a few fireworks. It is still anybody's guess what will happen in Wednesday's vote. Many MEPs want to raise the threshold for first generation biofuels from 5% to something around 7.5%. But it's also feasible that other amendments strengthening the proposal could succeed. For instance, many MEPs support a measure to make the ILUC accounting for fuel providers binding rather than just informative.
There is sure to be some fierce lobbying over the next few days in Strasbourg from both sides.