Biofuels: Euro MPs vote to cap use for transport

Biogas petrol station in Morsbach, eastern France
Image caption A biogas petrol station opened in Morsbach, eastern France, last year

The European Parliament has backed proposals to limit the amount of food crops used to produce biofuel.

MEPs say "first-generation" biofuels - from crops like corn - should not exceed 6% of fuel used in transport by 2020, amending the target from 10%.

They want "advanced biofuels" - sourced from seaweed or certain types of waste - to make up at least 2.5%.

Biofuels have been seen as a way to cut fossil fuel use, but using food crops can displace food production.

MEPs vote by 356 votes to 327 to support a legislative report by Corinne Lepage, a French liberal MEP, which puts a limit on the proportion of food-based biofuels that should make up the fuel mix.

It is the parliament's contribution to the new EU policy on biofuels announced by the European Commission last October.

The EU is negotiating changes to the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive and the 1998 Fuel Quality Directive.

Before becoming law, the proposals still have to be agreed with the 28 member states' governments, represented in the EU Council.

Much negotiation still lies ahead, amid intense lobbying by biofuel industry groups and environmentalists.

Land use dispute

The MEPs' target is slightly higher than the 5% cap proposed by the Commission - and there has been fierce argument among MEPs about the level at which to set the cap.

Ms Lepage's report argues that public subsidies for food-based biofuels in the EU encourage their cultivation on land that could otherwise be used for food production.

According to the environmental group Greenpeace, the US already uses 40% of its corn for ethanol, and in the EU more than 60% of rapeseed is used for biofuels.

Some studies suggest that continuing with the current level of EU incentives for food-based biofuels would actually cancel out the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions achieved by switching to biofuels.

Clearing land to plant food for biofuel releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) through ploughing and can involve deforestation, which reduces the "carbon sinks" - the trees that absorb CO2.

The EU's Joint Research Centre has calculated that scrapping the current biofuel incentives could lower the price of vegetable oil in the EU by 48% by 2020.

Ms Lepage's report also warns of the social impact of such biofuel cultivation - known as "indirect land use change (ILUC)".

"The indirect land use change effects are not only environmental but also social, and are placing additional pressure on land use, particularly in developing countries, which is having a negative impact on the food security of local people, in particular women," her report says.

The European Renewable Ethanol Association (ePURE) has rejected the suggestion that biofuel crops are putting too much pressure on food production. It also argues that the impact of biofuels on food prices has been greatly exaggerated.

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