Politics / Law

The seven seals of biofuel approval

22.08.2011

In the ongoing biofuel debate, probably the only viewpoint every participant shares is that fossil fuels will one day run out, and that a viable alternative needs to be found. In the early days of biofuel production, worldwide acreage dedicated to raising biofuel crops was negligible. With the greening of societies in the industrialised world, the terms “renewable” and “sustainable” at times seemed interchangeable. But then increasing numbers of farmers began growing crops for fuel, and attitudes changed. Suddenly, the biofuels that were supposed to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions were responsible for stealing food from the plates of the world’s hungry, as well as the destruction of wetlands and rain forests. Now the European Commission has taken the next controversial step, and set up a system for certifying sustainable biofuels.

The seven approved sustainability schemes (http://ec.europa.eu/energy/renewables/biofuels/sustainability_schemes_en.htm) that were agreed in mid-June have two primary goals. The Commission says bio­fuels must deliver “substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” and “should not come from forests, wetlands and nature protection areas.” At this stage, “substantial” has been defined by the Commission as “at least 35% compared to fossil fuels, rising to 50% in 2017 and to 60%, for bio­fuels from new plants, in 2018.” The responsible Commissioner Günther Oettinger calls the scheme “the most stringent in the world, (with) the highest environmental standards.” The Commission is also encouraging industry, governments and NGOs to set up what it calls “voluntary schemes“ to certify biofuel sustainability – and has attempted to explain the standards these schemes must meet to gain EU recognition. That’s a welcome advance for producers and distributors, who until now have had little regulatory data to help them make informed choices on what kinds of biofuel would ultimately be considered acceptable to both governments and consumers.

Before the ink is dry

While industry representatives were cautiously optimistic about the attempts to provide clarity, NGOs immediately went on the offensive. They have already sued the Commission for a lack of transparency and a failure to consult on whether the certification schemes violate the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees citizens and organisations the right to participate in environmental decisions, as well as access to the information for effective participation. One important issue is that of “indirect land use change” (iLUC), a parameter that seeks to define the indirect effects of bio­fuel impact, such as the amount of rain forest that is destroyed each year in order to provide farmland for biofuel-crop agriculture. The lawyer association and plaintiff ClientEarth continues to accuse the Commission of “withholding time-sensitive and critical environmental information necessary for meaningful public participation in the

review.” The Commission has said it will re-examine iLUC issues in September.

The future of biofuel production

Second and third-generation biofuels promise to be less divisive when it comes to social issues. But although few would deny that the concept needs work, the seven seals certification model is the Commission’s first really earnest attempt to differentiate between “renewable” and “sustainable”.

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