Climate impact of soy casts a shadow over RED II trilogue talks

14 May 2018 |

Upcoming talks to recast the renewable energy directive may focus on limiting the environmental impact of crop-based biodiesels, particularly those derived from soyoil and palmoil.

The talks, scheduled for May 17, come as the EU is facing a flood of soy and palm-based biodiesels.

Lawmakers from the European Parliament, EU Council and EU Commission will try find a compromise on the many conflicting and seemingly irreconcilable positions in the RED II draft.

Limiting the climate impact of palm oil-based biodiesel and biofuel derived from Argentine soybean will be among the more tricky aspects, with EU institutions required to agree on how to exclude or curb imports that are blamed for deforestation, biodiversity loss, and human rights abuses.

At the same time, the EU will need to consider how to avoid further censure from the World Trading Organisation and avoid costly trade wars in the wake of the Parliament's proposal to ban palm oil-based biodiesel from 2021, a stance that has prompted threats of retaliation from producer countries. 

Designing a metric based on greenhouse gas emissions that would effectively exclude biodiesel from soy and palm oil from RED II, but would not refer to them by name, is one of the measures being considered by co-legislators.

But formulating it will be complex and fraught with risks, say staff working with MEPs on the directive.

"A lack of focus on Argentine soy is one of the main weaknesses in the Parliament's amendments," said one staff with an MEP's office. 

Environmental campaigners say that while the current RED legislation applies certification standards on biofuels and feedstocks to try and prevent environmentally damaging imports, many of these commodities are fuelling environmental damage in South East Asia and Argentina.

The environmental impact on the South American country, which is one of the biggest exporters of soybean to the EU and a major supplier of soy-based biodiesel, requires much closer attention, said Kristina Wittkopp, an analyst with Transport and Environment. 

"The market for vegetable oils is international and interchangeable. So if we only disqualify palm oil biodiesel from the RED, there’s a big chance soybean biodiesel imports are going to fill the gap," she wrote in a blog.

"Soybean biodiesel is twice as bad for the climate as fossil oil so not a good alternative to palm."

Imports of soy-based biodiesel have risen to almost 800,000 metric tonnes since the EU lowered import tariffs in the second half of 2017 in the wake of rulings by the WTO and EU courts.

Germany-based International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC), which verifies the sustainabality credentials of biofuels, has also highlighted the impact that the European Parliament's proposed ban on palm oil would have by driving up demand for imported soy.

Certification 

Gernot Klepper, chairman of ISCC’s board, wrote in a blog that even if the EU's certification schemes limit the volumes of highly environmentally damaging commodities from RED II, these products would continue to be imported for non-energy uses where less stringent certification rules apply (animal feed for soy and consumer goods for palm oil).

EU negotiators will also have to consider whether certification schemes themselves are fit for purpose in the energy market and can monitor complex supply chains. 

"Certification schemes are lacking proper safeguards and they can't guarantee that the biofuel feedstocks are sustainable. The main reason is that these certification schemes can't capture indirect land use change effects - deforestation, emissions, environment," campaign group FERN said in an email to Energy Census. 

"Therefore certification will always be faulty as a big chunk of emissions is missing. This conclusion was reached by the EU Court of Auditors," it added. 

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