The European Union (EU) has announced on October 17 that the amount of biofuels that will be required to make up the transportation energy mix by 2020 has been halved from 10 per cent to 5 per cent.

The rollback mostly affects first-generation biofuels, which are produced from food crops such as corn, sugarcane, and potato.

The new policy is in place to mitigate the backfiring of switching from less-clean fossil fuels to first-generation biofuels. A study conducted in 2009-2012 by the EU found that greenhouse gas emissions were on the rise because of conversion of agricultural land for planting first-generation biofuel crops. It also became known that large quantities of carbon stock had been released into the atmosphere because of forest clearance and peatland-draining.

As a step toward achieving the new goals, the EU will impose an emissions threshold on the amount of carbon stock that can be released when some agricultural land is converted for growing biofuel crops. The threshold will essentially exclude many biofuels from entering the market.

Fuel-farming

Despite move reducing the acreage that “fuel-farming” will gobble up, it is not without criticisms. As Tracy Carty, a spokeswoman for the poverty action group Oxfam, said: “The cap is lower than the current levels of biofuels use and will do nothing to reduce high food prices.”

The October 17 announcement effectively revises the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), 2009, which first required that biofuels constitute 10 per cent of the alternate energy mix by 2020.

The EU is now incentivising second-generation biofuels — manufactured from crop residues such as organic waste, algae, and woody materials — that do not interfere with food-production.

The RED also required that biofuels which replace fossil fuels be at least 35 per cent more efficient. The EU has now made more stringent; biofuels should be at least 50 per cent more efficient by 2017, and 60 per cent more efficient after 2020.

Research on high-performance biofuels is still nascent. As of now, it has been aimed at extracting the maximum amount of fuel from available stock, not as much at improving their efficiency.

Same stand

Like the EU, the U.S. too has a biofuel-consumption target set for 2022. However, a U.S. National Research Council report released on October 24 found that if algal biofuels, second-generation fluids whose energy capacity lies between petrol’s and diesel’s, have to constitute as much as 5 per cent of the country’s alternate energy mix, “unsustainable demands” would be placed on “energy, water and nutrients.”

What is indeed significant is that the two major energy blocs – the U.S. and the EU – are leading the way to phase out first-generation biofuels and replace them completely with second-generation counterparts. As Gunther Oettinger, the EU Energy Commissioner, remarked, “This new proposal will give new incentives for best-performing biofuels.”

The announcement also affirms that till 2020, no major changes will be effected in the biofuels sector, and post-2020, only second-generation biofuels will be supported, paving the way for sustained and focused development of high-efficiency, low-emission alternatives to fossil fuels.

More In: Science | Sci-Tech