The European Union could be on the road to more stringent biofuel regulations. In a hard-won compromise, the European Parliament’s Environmental (ENVI) Committee on July 11 voted to cap the transportation industry’s use of first-generation biofuels at 5.5% and to require reporting of the indirect land use changes (ILUC) caused by biofuel production. The vote also calls for countries and suppliers to promote the use of alternative biofuel sources, such as algae and straw. These steps represent some progress in the battle over biofuels’ environmental and food security effects, says IFPRI Senior Research Fellow David Laborde, and are “a step in the right direction.”

The “food versus fuel” controversy has swirled around the subject of biofuels since the beginning. While supporters tout biofuels as a critical tool in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and mitigating the effects of climate change, critics say that using food crops such as maize and soybeans to produce fuel rather than food increases global food prices and contributes to hunger and food insecurity.

More recently, a second debate has emerged, one focused on whether biofuels’ environmental benefits are as significant as originally thought. The debate centers on indirect land use changes, or ILUC. Biofuel production requires land, and this land needs to come from somewhere – either existing agricultural plots or newly cleared areas. When forests, wetlands, and other pristine lands are cleared to make space for both food and fuel crops, the carbon stored in their soil and accumulated biomass is released, resulting in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. These ILUC effects could lower biofuels' environmental benefits; some estimates suggest that, when ILUC are taken into account, many types of biodiesel (fuels produced from crops like soybeans and palm oil) can produce more emissions than fossil fuels (see this article in Nature).

Two IFPRI reports, commissioned by the EC in 2009 and released in 2010 and 2011, used the MIRAGE-Biof model to find that the EU’s original biofuel mandate of 5.6% was at the upper limit of environmental sustainability and would likely produce significant ILUC effects. Laborde, the reports’ main author, advised that the overall scope of the EU mandate be limited or the GHG savings threshold for all biofuel crops be increased in order to minimize these effects. While the measurement of ILUC has been criticized by some within the biofuel industry as unreliable, in 2012 the EC drew on this research in a proposal to lower the biofuel mandate to 5% and require reporting of ILUC by all fuel suppliers and EU member states.

Its cap on first-generation biofuels is slightly higher than the proposed 5%, but the ENVI’s vote on July 11 is still good news, says Laborde. Of particular importance is the inclusion of ILUC in companies’ and countries’ reporting practices, and the requirement that potential ILUC be computed using a model such as MIRAGE. While the vote makes no effort to legislate ILUC levels, the new reporting requirement itself will reinforce the fact that ILUC is an important factor that needs to be acknowledge and addressed by both the public and the private sector. “It [the vote] may not go as far as we’d like,” says Laborde. “But given the political and economic constraints we faced, it is a good deal and it is going in the right direction.”

The proposal will go before the EU Parliament for a decisive vote in September.

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