Agrofuels update

The destructive impacts of subsidising a bad idea
25 October 2013

EU agrofuels policy is having serious impacts on biodiversity, food provision and the livelihoods and food sovereignty of local communities in the global South and in the EU itself, as well as on climate change. Yet we seem locked into it because of lobbying by industry coupled with EU government collusion, delay and confusion.

Politicians are involved in negotiating issues that will not effectively address the core problem, such as percentage caps for food-based agrofuels. This is not acceptable, but it is difficult to see a way forward, partly because of the way the decision-making institutions, at least in the EU, are constituted.


Impacts on land and emission levels

Ever since agrofuels targets were established in European legislation in 2009, some NGOs have focused on trying to reduce the damage from this policy by getting the impacts of indirect land-use change (ILUC) recognised in the legislation. ILUC arises from the expansion of cropland: for example, production of one crop is displaced to a new region by increased demand for land for another crop.i This new region may be forest or land used for food production by communities, who are then displaced in turn. It has been shown that large-scale use of vegetable oil for biodiesel (including European-grown rapeseed) has resulted in increased worldwide demand for palm oil, driving deforestation and the destruction of peatland in Indonesiaii, with major impacts on biodiversity and local communities. If genuinely science-based calculations for greenhouse gas emissions from ILUC were included in the calculations for agrofuels, fewer would be eligible for direct or indirect subsidies or count towards renewable energy targets. The EU Parliament has voted to include accounting for ILUC, but only in the Fuel Quality Directive from 2020, as part of a package to cap agrofuels from food crops. However, the Commission has called for only the reporting of ILUC without accounting for its impacts and the Council of Ministers may follow.


Deadlocks likely to prevent action at least until the new EU Parliament in 2014

The news from the legislation front is not good: on October 17th, the Environment Committee of the European Parliament failed to achieve the necessary vote to allow their rapporteur, Corinne Lepage MEP, to negotiate on agrofuels with the Council of Ministers, even though the proposals for change on the table are extremely weak.iii This failure means more delay: it is now extremely unlikely that agrofuels reform will be completed before this parliament comes to an end in April 2014. It is even possible that after European elections in May 2014, the new Commission might simply abandon any reform to current agrofuels policy.iv


Government positions range from weak to indefensible

Meanwhile, in the Council of Ministers, positions on caps for agrofuels derived from food crops range from support for a 5% cap, with only Denmark calling for a lower level, to a cap of 7% or more, or no cap at all. It is not enough to talk about caps for agrofuels from food crops; what is really needed is, as ever, for the EU to drop its targets and subsidies for agrofuels altogether. The EU collectively needs to understand the negative impact its agrofuels policy is having on countries outside Europe - an impact completely out of proportion to the paltry contribution of that policy to reducing emissions, especially since even that is being challenged by a growing body of evidence.


Powerful industry lobby in Brussels…

Behind all this is the European agrofuels industry, basically called into being by the European Commission between 1997, when the first proposals for agrofuels policies were developed, and 2007, when the 10% target for transport agrofuels was set.v This industry, in alliance with agribusiness, is strongly opposing any attempt to limit the subsidies it enjoys. It is certainly the case that it would barely exist without them. For example the European Biodiesel Board applauded the failure to vote to allow Corinne Lepage to negotiate with the ministers, calling attempts to speed up the negotiation process on ILUC ‘emotionally pushed’.vi


active also in Rome at the Committee on World Food Security (CFS)

Also in October 2013, the agrofuels industry was blamed by civil society and social movements for preventing any just outcome on agrofuels at the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome. This despite the fact that the report of the High level Panel of Experts on agrofuels to the CFS clearly states that energy policy is linked to food security and that agrofuels have been a key driver in food price spikes and volatility over recent years. Several previous attempts were made by civil society groups without success to change the agrofuels decision box, which barely acknowledges the impact of agrofuels on food security and makes only the weakest of general recommendations. Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, criticised the lack of substantive measures proposed in the box and added his voice to the calls for targets to be reduced and finally dropped. However, the box emerged from the process little changed from the much-criticised draft. Civil society refused to endorse the decision box on agrofuels in its statement following the adoption of the decision box by governments and said:


The text overwhelmingly reflects the opinion of countries defending the interests of their own agrofuels industry.vii


This was not unforeseen: in an open letter signed by more than 80 groups before the negotiations, the heading reads:‘The Committee on World Food Security must not allow itself to be captured by agrofuels interest groups’viii, and the heading on the press release afterwards says: ‘Biofuels industry strong arms governments at UN food security conference’.ix


Political paralysis on agrofuels continues in Europe

This outcome is especially discouraging because civil society representatives successfully lobbied for the reform of the Committee on World Food Securityx with the aim of providing improved rights and access for civil society and social movements. The power of the agrofuels industry to prevent the amendment of the decision box to respond to the clear evidence of harm from agrofuels is very disquieting, as is the failure of governments to take a stand. This failure will send a bad signal to negotiators in the EU, while a good outcome could have helped to push the EU into making decisions before the end of this Parliament instead of delaying once more.


The fact remains that even though the agrofuels industry has a strong lobby, it is not growing, investment is shrinking, and it faces an uncertain future, with dwindling prospect for continued support after 2020. Long-promised development of non-food based, next generation and advanced agrofuels remains … a promise.xi This is yet more confirmation that the industry lacks true viability. The danger is that an industry based on a bad idea continues to lock EU policy into agrofuels.



ii Bailey, R. (2013) ‘The Trouble with Biofuels: Costs and Consequences of Expanding Biofuel Use in the United Kingdom’, available at,%20Environment%20and%20Development/0413pp_biofuels.pdf

iii of EU trialogue talks on biofuels delayed, by Valerie Flynn, ENDS Europe, 10 October 2013

iv Technically speaking, the parliament doesn’t have the right to scrap legislation: but the Council could leave it in limbo, or the Commission could scrap it

v see A foreseeable disaster: The European Union’s agroenergy policies and the global land and water grab, by Helena Paul, Econexus, and

vi Decision to stall second ILUC reading hailed by biodiesel board: <>  

viii <>

ix see for example at:

xiBiofuel Investments at Seven-Year Low as BP Blames Cost by Louise Downing and Eduard Gismatullin, Bloomberg, July 08, 2013,