EU panel votes to lower controversial biofuel goal

STRASBOURG (Reuters) - European Union lawmakers took a first step towards lowering EU biofuels targets when a European Parliament panel backed a proposal to draw just 4 percent of road transport fuels from renewable sources by 2015.

The EU plans to get 10 percent of road transport fuel from renewable sources such as biofuels by 2020, but the target has been attacked by environmentalists, who say it contributes to rising food prices and deforestation.

Biofuels are mainly produced from food crops such as wheat, maize, sugar cane and vegetable oils and are seen as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Officials place great hope in second-generation biofuels, not yet in commercial production, that would use biomass from forest and crop waste, and algae, without competing with food production.

Luxembourg Green MEP Claude Turmes proposed amending the target to 4 percent in 2015, with a major review before proceeding to a target of 8 to 10 percent by 2020.

Parliament’s environment committee voted 36-0 in favor of the amendment late on Monday, with 8 abstentions.

Big biofuels producers like Brazil are closely watching the commercialization of biofuels in the EU, hoping to gain a massive new market.

“The EU should be aiming to set the standard for biofuels,” Turmes told Reuters on Tuesday.

Although parliament’s environment committee is only lending its advice on the proposals, Turmes is leading renewables legislation through the more influential industry committee and said he would put forward a similar amendment there ahead of a vote in September.

The final parliament vote is expected later in the year.

“The political tide in Europe is now turning against biofuels,” said Adrian Bebb, agrofuels coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe, an environmental pressure group.

“Politicians are waking up to the fact that using crops to feed cars is a disaster in the making for both people and nature,” he added.

The vote came after the British government said on Monday it would slow the introduction of biofuels, accepting the conclusions of a report it commissioned from Ed Gallagher, chair of the UK’s Renewable Fuels Agency.

France, which has just taken over the EU’s rotating presidency for six months, said last week that setting strict environmental and social criteria for the import of biofuels was more important than meeting the 10 percent target.

“On biofuels, we do not rule out in the long run reconsidering the target, but that is not the issue now,” French Secretary of State for Ecology Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told reporters.

Italy already called for the goal to be reviewed last month.

A draft report by the European Environment Agency, obtained by Reuters last week, said the EU may get barely one-third of its target for biofuels in transport fuels from home-produced sources by 2020, requiring massive imports to meet the goal.

Reporting by Pete Harrison, editing by Paul Taylor