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European Commission climate plans could spell disaster for wetlands

Published on:
  • Climate mitigation and adaptation
  • Peatland conservation and restoration
  • Private sector performance

Brussels – The European Commission’s proposal for a climate and energy package for the period between 2020 and 2030 may throw the door wide open to imports of dirty fuels from tar sands and endanger sustainability criteria for biofuels.

Among the proposals put forward by the European Commission is a plan to remove legislation on the carbon intensity of fuels, the so-called Fuel Quality Directive (FQD). This Directive currently imposes a target of 6% improvement in the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of transport fuels by 2020 and has effectively restricted the imports into the European Union (EU) of fuels originating from tar sands. Such fuels require high energy inputs for their production, and have devastating impacts on wetland ecosystems.

The FQD also contains sustainability criteria for biofuels, ensuring that fuels made from crops grown on peatlands and other high-value ecosystems cannot be subsidised in the EU. These criteria are repeated in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED), which the Commission does not propose eliminating. The proposal, however, is to remove provisions relating to transport fuels from the RED, begging the question of what will happen to the sustainability criteria.

On a more positive note, the removal of transport fuel provisions from the RED will end the perverse incentives currently provided by demanding that Member States use at least 10% renewable energy in fuels. The most significant contribution to this target so far has been through the use of biofuels, which are counted as neutral in terms of GHG emissions, but which can in fact cause higher emissions than fossil fuels – if emissions from so-called “indirect land use change” are taken into consideration. When cropland is used to produce biofuels, the crops that were previously grown on that same land are displaced to another location. This increasing demand for arable land has led to the destruction and degradation of large areas of forest and peatlands, mainly in Latin America and Southeast Asia, in turn leading to enormous CO2 emissions.

Another positive element of the document concerns the proposal to include agriculture, forestry and land use in the EU’s GHG reduction target for 2030. How this is to be done, however, is still to be decided. CO2 emissions from organic soils and peatlands in Europe are the second highest in the world, only surpassed by Indonesia. Therefore, including these emissions in the emissions reduction target might provide a powerful incentive to rewet and rehabilitate degraded peatlands in Europe.

The question that remains is whether the overall emissions reduction target of 40% compared to 1990 will be sufficient to drive such rehabilitation efforts. The target is not very ambitious, taking into account the fact that a business as usual scenario indicates that the EU would reach emission reductions of similar magnitude by that date anyway. More importantly, such a target is not in line with scientific estimates of the necessary emission cuts in order to keep global warming below 2°C.

The proposed framework for climate and energy policy lays down the Commission’s ideas for the EU’s targets in terms of GHG emission reductions, renewable energy and energy efficiency between 2020 and 2030. It will now have to be negotiated between the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.