When did it all begin?
Back in 2008, the European Commission set up the Renewable Energy Directive which established a framework to promote renewable energy in the European Union and set mandatory national targets for the share of renewable energy in gross final energy consumption and for the share of renewable sources in the transport sector. This directive required the European Union to cover their energy needs with at least 20% renewable sources. Additionally, all European Countries must ensure that 10% of their transport fuels originate from renewable sources by 2020.
The recent amendments
Since its publication, the Renewable Energy Directive has been amended several times and in 2018 the European Commission decided that the Directive should be recast meaning on 11th December 2018 a new version of the Directive was published. This version considered the greenhouse gas reduction commitments made in the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change during the 21st COP conference. In this new recast Directive, it is stated that the European Union should have a share of 32% of renewable energy by 2030. A revision in 2023 is still a possibility that lies on the discussion table. This new renewable energy target requires all member states to make and revise their national climate plans and send their final plans by the end of 2019.
The biofuels issue…
A point of interest lies in the biofuel topic. Biofuels have always sparked some controversy as the competition for land from feedstock has always been a point of discussion. The original Directive did include a sustainability criterion addressing the protection of land with high biodiversity value and land with high carbon stock. Indirect-land use change (ILUC) which was not originally covered (it was later added in an amendment in 2015) is now included in this new recast Directive by setting up updated Sustainability Criteria for biofuels. These criteria provide details limits on ILUC-risk biofuels, bioliquids, and biomass fuels with a significant expansion inland with high carbon stock, therefore limiting the amount of these types of fuels that member states can count to fulfill their targets. An interesting add-on for biofuels is the possibility of biofuel low ILUC-risk certification. For this last purpose, a regulation was published in March of 2019 in which a general criterion for certification of low indirect land-use change-risk biofuels, bioliquids and biomass fuels is laid out. The compliance of this criterion is proposed to be audited by voluntary schemes that have been already recognised by the Commission and which have experience in certifying the sustainability criteria set in the currently applicable Renewable Energy Directive for biofuels and bioliquids.
Who can use the voluntary schemes and what exactly are they?
In order to show that the biofuel production of a company is done sustainably, the EU Commission has recognised the validity of these voluntary schemes. These voluntary schemes must ensure that the biofuel complies with the following:
- Production of biofuel feedstock does not take place on land with high biodiversity
- Land with a high amount of carbon has not been converted for biofuel feedstock production; and
- Biofuel production leads to sufficient greenhouse gas emissions savings
Companies that have voluntary schemes are required to be audited before they start to participate in the scheme and retroactive audits take place regularly. The voluntary schemes recognized by the EC include the ISCC (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification), 2BSvs (Biomass Biofuels voluntary scheme), RSB EU RED (Roundtable of Sustainable Biofuels EU RED), and Red Cert among others. Even though these schemes are recognized by the EC, sustainability criteria for biofuels are still quite a new terrain, therefore the EC is working to develop a new version of what these sustainability criteria for biofuels mean.
How are the schemes moving forward?
In the upcoming years, the EC will develop regulations that could serve as guidance for the new sustainability criteria and update the EU rules for voluntary schemes. Furthermore, during 2020 the EC is planning to begin with the revision of current voluntary schemes to check whether they adhere to the newly updated sustainability criteria for biofuels.
It is clear that the role of biofuels and also of biobased materials is becoming more and more relevant in the sustainability playfield. Special attention is required to ensure that not only because fuel is of “bio” origin it could always be considered the most sustainable alternative. After all, not losing sight of a systems perspective is crucial to make sure that these biomaterials and fuels do not have unintended and unexpected consequences.