May 19. 2024. 2:02

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Brussels accused of backsliding on soy ban for biofuels

Environmental campaigners have accused the European Commission of trying to reverse the European Parliament’s decision to ban soy for biofuel production over fears that it could expose the EU to legal challenges at the WTO.

A raft of prominent NGOs allege that the EU executive is working against a ban on soy as a biofuel feedstock, which is part of the European Parliament’s position in negotiations over the revision of the EU’s renewable energy law.

According to NGOs, the European Commission is concerned that a ban on soy could have a similar effect to the EU’s decision to phase out the use of palm oil as a feedstock by 2030.

The move to restrict palm oil led to an outcry from Asian nations that had invested in producing the feedstock, with Malaysia and Indonesia suing the EU at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for unfair trade practices.

Argentina, which exports soy-based biodiesel to Europe, is said to be alarmed by the EU debate on blacklisting the feedstock. NGOs also assert that the European Commission is worried that restrictions could harm negotiations on the EU-Mercosur free trade agreement.

A leaked note from the Council of the EU’s energy working party in February, seen by EURACTIV, states that the Commission “stressed that if the threshold in Art. 26 is changed, it should be done on scientific bases, otherwise there is a risk of more WTO cases”.

The note adds that the Commission is consulting its lawyers over the implications of pursuing such a phase out.

Backing the European Parliament’s position

In a letter sent on 1 March, NGOs asked the European Commission to confirm their support for the “immediate phase out” of palm and soy in biofuels.

“There is enough scientific data backing the immediate phase out of both palm and soy, for the climate, biodiversity and food security. The EU cannot afford to dodge important environmental decisions simply for the sake of avoiding potential trade disputes,” states the missive.

The letter was signed by green NGOs including Oxfam, WWF, and Transport & Environment.

In September 2022, the European Parliament voted to lower the threshold for high indirect land use change (ILUC) – a measurement of the extent to which crops used in biofuels drive deforestation, particularly in developing countries.

The shift from 10% to 7.9% is just enough to ensure soy, which has an 8% ILUC score, would be in breach of the threshold and so phased out as a biofuel feedstock.

Parliament lawmakers additionally want to bring forward the start of the phase-out date for palm oil and soy, currently set at 2030, to as soon as the directive enters into force.

The European Parliament vote on the renewable energy law is not binding, but sets the Parliament’s position in negotiations with EU member states and the European Commission to finalise the law in the coming months.

Wins and losses for campaigners as EU Parliament agrees new restrictions on biofuels

EU lawmakers voted Wednesday (14 September) to effectively ban the use of soybeans as a feedstock for fuel, but declined to tighten an existing 7% cap on the use of crop-based biofuels, provoking mixed reactions from NGOs and industry campaigners.

Trade fears

Asked by EURACTIV if fears of trade disputes with third countries influences the EU’s approach to biofuels, the European Commission said that it is guided by science.

“WTO rules rightly prohibit policies which discriminate against third countries. However, in general, this does not prevent the EU from taking measures to protect the environment based on objective and scientifically justified criteria,” an EU official told EURACTIV.

Under EU rules, the ILUC rating assigned to feedstocks is not dictated by lawmakers, but rather through a “delegated act” – a fast-track type of legislation used to update evolving technical or scientific matters.

Once the Commission proposes updates to legislation using delegated acts, EU lawmakers can either accept or reject the changes, but cannot propose further amendments.

“The methodology to identify high ILUC-risk biofuels is set out in a delegated act adopted by the Commission in March 2019. The methodology is based on objective criteria in line with WTO obligations,” the EU official said.

The EU official added that the Commission reviews the underlying data on the ILUC rating of feedstocks on a continuous basis to ensure that the identification of problematic crops is “based on up-to-date scientific data”.

Support for the delegated act

The European Biodiesel Board (EBB), a trade association, questioned why the ILUC threshold was open to being challenged by European Parliament politicians.

“The categorisation of high-ILUC risk feedstocks should take place within the framework of the delegated act. It is not for the [Renewable Energy Directive] legislative process to change the criteria itself,” Andre Paula Santos, EBB’s public affairs director, told EURACTIV.

“The delegated act is scheduled to be revised in the future. The European Commission should do that assessment, and determine if soy would be (or not) added to the list of high ILUC-risk feedstocks,” he continued.

Santos also criticised the Parliament’s push to have high-ILUC feedstocks banned immediately, arguing that the 2030 date, which was agreed just a few years ago, provided stability and predictability for the market.

After palm oil, activists aim at banning soy oil for use in biofuels

The European biofuels industry has hit back at allegations that it is driving deforestation in the Amazon, arguing that soy imported into the bloc for biofuels must undergo checks to ensure it is not contributing to habitat destruction.