EU politicians have backed a new limit on crop-based biofuels in the face of growing doubts about their green credentials.
The vote by the European Parliament's environment committee will be followed by a plenary vote in September and will also require endorsement by member states, but environmental campaigners said today's vote was a landmark on the journey towards more sustainable biofuels.
The green status of crop-based biofuels has been questioned by mounting evidence they increase demand for crops displacing food production into new areas and forcing forest clearance and draining of peatland – known as ILUC (indirect land-use change) – which can result in enough carbon emissions to cancel out any theoretical savings from biofuels.
An EU target to get 10 per cent of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020 was introduced in 2008, with most of it expected to come from biofuels made from sugar, cereals and oilseeds, but the new proposals would limit crop-based biofuels to contributing just 5.5 per cent of that total.
In a statement after the vote, EU vegetable oil industry body FEDIOL said: “The environment committee has taken a radical step in limiting and phasing out conventional biofuels, threatening the operations of FEDIOL members.
“The iLUC science remains unreliable and it is not expected that scientists will reach an agreement on the validity of a particular model in the short term. Given this background, reporting will be based on defective and highly uncertain iLUC factors.
“This will discredit a sustainability compliant industry, erode confidence in the production of sustainable raw materials and put operational investments at risk.”
Biodiesel, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the estimated €13bn (£11.2bn) EU biofuel sector, is thought to be the most environmentally damaging of these fuels.
Most recently, a study by the Joint Research Centre – the EU Commission's in-house research body – confirmed the findings of earlier EU studies that biodiesel made from crops such as rapeseed does more harm to the climate than conventional diesel.
Emissions from one litre of biodiesel made from imported soy are equivalent to burning up to two litres of diesel from fossil fuel, its data analysis found. Other biofuels are much less problematic, according to the research.
Reacting to the vote Friends of the Earth's Biofuels Campaigner Kenneth Richter said: "The committee has taken a timid step in the right direction by reforming EU biofuels policy; including the decision to penalise biofuels that result in significant greenhouse gas emissions through deforestation.
"But it's disappointing that a course hasn't been set to phase out the use of food crops for fuel; instead MEPs have chosen to cap it at a level that is even higher than current use.
"It's crucial that when they vote again in September the current reforms are not watered down any further."
Committee members also voted for extra incentives to promote the use of so-called advanced or second-generation biofuels made from waste or agricultural residues rather than food crops, seen as the most sustainable type of fuel but still at an early stage of commercialisation.