The European Parliament’s industry committee voted Wednesday (13 July) to restrict soy oil as a feedstock for biofuel production, a move that would put the crop on the same footing as palm oil in the EU.
MEPs took the decision due to concerns over the environmental impact of soy cultivation in countries outside of Europe where it is blamed for causing deforestation.
Some 73% of soybeans used in biodiesel production are currently imported from South America, according to clean mobility campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E).
Lawmakers additionally want to bring forward the start of the phase-out date for palm oil and soy – currently set at 2030 – to apply as soon as the directive enters into force, possibly as of next year.
“Palm oil and soya may no longer be counted towards the quota for first-generation biofuels as soon as the directive enters into force,” said Markus Pieper, a German MEP who steered the proposed legislation through Parliament.
“We excluded soya because we have our doubts about the sustainable conditions in [which] third world countries deliver it for Europe,” the German centre-right lawmaker explained at a press briefing.
The industry committee’s position on the updated renewable energy directive was adopted with 54 votes in favour, 14 against, and 6 abstentions.
Provisions agreed by lawmakers include an increased greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for the transport sector of 16% (three percentage points higher than the Commission’s original proposal), and a goal of 45% renewable energy by 2030 (up from the 40% proposal tabled last year).
Pieper said the industry committee’s position has “raised the requirements for the sustainability of biomass and fuels, while at the same time showing ways in which biogenic materials can make a real economic contribution to the energy transition”.
The committee’s position is not yet law, however, as it must first be approved by the full European Parliament in a plenary vote before negotiations with member states can start to finalise the law. The Parliament vote is set to take place during the 12-15 September plenary session in Strasbourg.
Threshold for indirect land use change (ILUC)
According to EU rules adopted in 2019, all biofuel feedstocks that exceed a certain emissions threshold are prohibited from contributing to renewable energy targets in EU member states.
To ensure a de facto ban on soy, the industry committee voted to lower the threshold at which a crop is considered to be at high risk of contributing to deforestation abroad – or indirect land use change (ILUC).
MEPs lowered that threshold from 10% to 7.9%. By the Commission’s estimate, soy is currently at an 8% risk of expansion into land with high carbon stock, such as forests, wetlands and peatlands.
Palm oil, which was previously blacklisted as a biofuel feedstock by lawmakers, is estimated to have a 45% risk of high indirect land use change (ILUC). By contrast, both rapeseed and sunflower oil – alternative feedstocks used in the production of biodiesel – have a 1% rating.
The move is a victory for environmental campaigners, who set their sights on banning soy oil following a successful battle against palm oil.
However, other limits for first generation biofuels were left untouched, including the 7% cap on the quantity of crop-based biofuels used that can be used in the transport sector.
MEPs also maintained a rule stipulating that member states cannot go beyond a 1% point increase in biofuel usage compared to the 2020 national share of these fuels in rail and road transport.
Campaigners welcomed the de facto ban on soy as a biofuels feedstock, even though they were disappointed that MEPs did not go further in limiting the use of all crop-based biofuels.
“Biofuels mandates have been a disaster. The ITRE committee took a step forward in correcting this by phasing out support for soy and palm oil immediately,” said Laura Buffet, energy director at T&E.
“With palm oil already on the way out, there was a major risk that it would simply be replaced by soy oil. However, the phase out of soy, the fastest expanding crop area in Brazil, will help to release some of the pressure on the Amazon, which is teetering on the brink of collapse,” she added.
‘A step in the right direction’
EU farmer’s association Copa-Cogeca declined to comment on the vote.
But biofuel industry groups were more positive and appeared to accept the ban on soy biodiesel as inevitable while expressing satisfaction that other aspects of the EU’s biofuels policy was upheld.
The European Biodiesel Board (EBB) was largely positive towards the committee’s position, labelling it “a step in the right direction”, though the trade association declined to comment on the classification of soy as driver of deforestation.
Wednesday’s vote in Parliament “confirmed the role of biodiesel from all sustainable feedstocks to reach the EU climate objectives,” EBB said in a statement.
“We are pleased to see that in a very polarised political debate, we were able to convince MEPs that sustainable biodiesel from crops, as well as wastes and residues, contributes to food safety, energy security, circularity, and social inclusiveness,” said Xavier Noyon, EBB secretary-general.
ePURE, a trade association representing ethanol producers, was similarly approving, arguing that the position against crop biofuels advocated by the environment committee would increase emissions.
With their vote, Parliament lawmakers “signalled that sustainably produced crop-based biofuels such as renewable EU ethanol do play an important role in transport decarbonisation – today and tomorrow,” said David Carpintero, Director General of ePURE.
According to Carpintero, the Parliament’s industry committee vote “will certainly contribute more to EU transport decarbonisation than the position taken by the environment committee, which would create a gap in the transport energy mix that would have to be filled by imported fossil fuel”.
The environment committee had sought to more than halve the share of crop-based biofuels in the EU – a stance which was not adopted by industry committee MEPs.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]
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