Lawmakers in Europe reduce food-based biofuel

BRUSSELS — The European Parliament voted Wednesday to significantly reduce the amount of biofuels made from food crops by 2020 to counter concerns over the energy source’s environmental and ethical sustainability.

Environmentalists argue biofuels made from sugar, corn or soybeans add as much or even more to greenhouse gas emissions as the fossil fuels they are meant to replace. Others are criticizing the burning of crops displaces food production and drives up prices for basic staples while there are still millions of malnourished worldwide.

Despite frantic efforts by biofuel lobbyists and agricultural groups, a narrow 356-327 majority voted to lower the amount of fuel that must come from renewable sources across the 28-nation bloc by 2020 from 10 percent to 6 percent, said lawmaker Corinne Lepage.

The decision reached during a plenary session in Strasbourg also calls for advanced biofuels, based on seaweed or certain types of waste, to represent at least 2.5 percent of transportation’s energy consumption across the 28-nation bloc by 2020.

The overall target of 10 percent was initially established in 2008, but the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, last year proposed a 5 percent cap for food crop-based biofuels. The legislation now goes back to the EU’s member states. If they reject Parliament’s bill, lawmakers will have to hold a new vote on their proposal later on.

Parliament’s environment committee had initially voted in favor of a cap of 5.5 percent while the industry committee sought a limit of 6.5 percent. Wednesday’s compromise lies slightly above biofuel’s current share of transport energy consumption, meaning existing investments are protected even though the sector’s rapid growth is poised to slow down.

Marc Olivier Herman of Oxfam, a charity, said the mild cap was better than nothing, but insisted Parliament “is still guilty of neglecting the needs of both the people and the planet.”

“This anemic compromise means entirely preventable hunger and environmental devastation will continue,” he said. “Millions will continue to be susceptible to volatile food prices, deforestation and further land-grabbing,” he added.

Environmental groups also criticize that the EU’s high targets have led to soaring demand for biofuel made from palm oil, which is linked to rapid deforestation in Southeast Asia that causes more carbon emissions, forest fires and smog across the region.

“Palm oil is driving mass deforestation, wildlife loss, community conflicts, and accelerating climate change,” said campaigner Robbie Blake of Friends of the Earth.

The European Renewable Ethanol Association, in turn, rejects the suggestion that biofuel crops are putting too much pressure on food production. The group also argues that the impact of biofuels on food prices is greatly exaggerated, while it criticizes limiting what it bills as one of Europe’s growing industries.

“At a time when we need to boost our economy it is difficult to see why MEPs agree to curtail jobs and investments in a sector that helps Europe to grow the production of clean and sustainable fuels,” the group’s Rob Vierhout said.

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