The European Commission will seek to salvage its beleaguered biofuels policy on Thursday by announcing a quality-certification process for biodiesel and ethanol and clarifying limits on fuels from sensitive areas like forests and partly drained peat lands.
Ensuring that biofuels are a credible source of low-carbon energy that deliver greenhouse gas savings compared with fossil fuels is a key component of European Union efforts to set standards worldwide for lowering emissions over the next 10 years.
Europe plans to rely on biofuels to "do most of the work" reducing emissions from cars and trucks, the commission, the executive arm of the European Union, said in a statement Monday. Reducing transportation emissions was "particularly hard to achieve and reliance on imported oil is particularly high," it said.
Commission officials spoke on condition of anonymity about the details before the official announcement, by the E.U. energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, scheduled for Thursday.
The 27 member countries of the European Union agreed two years ago to generate 10 percent of their transportation fuel from renewable sources by 2020. A large proportion is supposed to come from biofuels. The remainder would come from other sources, like electric vehicles.
But the green credentials of the policy were badly dented as energy experts issued a stream of reports suggesting that many of the biofuels on the market were causing more emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing the fuels were taken into account.
A sudden spike in food prices at about the same time served to highlight the potentially negative effects biofuels, which some experts said were displacing food crops and making corn, wheat and soy harder to obtain for human nutritional needs.
Some companies that import palm oil into Europe have already made commitments to follow sustainability guidelines under development by environmental groups and by industry groups.
Mr. Oettinger's endorsement represents a way for the commission to certify that those guidelines meet E.U. standards, and commission officials said he planned to call on companies to apply for the quality stamp before year-end.
The announcement on Thursday will be Mr. Oettinger's first major policy statement on renewable energy. Commission officials said the statement showed his commitment to restoring the green credentials of the fuels.
Mr. Oettinger also plans to clarify on Thursday that companies must not interpret existing E.U. rules to cut down forests or sow crops on partly drained peat lands for biofuels, commission officials said. Even partly drained peat land still contains significant amounts of stored carbon, which can escape as carbon dioxide gas once the land is cultivated and contribute to climate change.
But the tighter rules on peat lands could anger countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, which are the major suppliers palm oil used to make biodiesel for European motorists.
Officials said trade experts at the commission had established that the measures would be compatible with international trade rules, partly because they would apply equally to biofuels producers growing crops inside and outside the bloc.
Mr. Oettinger's quality stamp, "Recognized by the European Union," also could prove controversial.
He still must reach a decision on how to calculate the emissions created when food crops have been displaced by fuel crops, and when areas containing high stores of carbon like grasslands, peat lands or forests are chopped down to produce the food crops elsewhere.
E.U. officials said Mr. Oettinger's stamp could include criteria on Indirect Land Use Change, in the jargon of emissions experts, once he decides on the scale of its effects at the end of this year.
But experts warned that the stamp risked ending up being criticized for legitimizing unsustainable practices.
A "labeling system which is not dealing with the indirect effects will not be regarded as a guarantee for sustainability," said Jan Ros, project leader for bioenergy at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, a Dutch national institute for environmental research and planning.
"The real challenge is to find biofuels that do not create these indirect effects like fuels from crops grown on degraded lands or fuels generated from waste products," Mr. Ros said.
E.U. officials said the stamp would be added to the labels used by sustainability programs managed by governments, civil society organizations or industry bodies that meet E.U. criteria.
Although the certification would last for five years, it would also rely on annual checks done by outside auditors, but those audits would be paid for by fuel producers.
Companies would also be free to decide how to display the stamp, and that could limit its use to farmers and processors.
But commission officials said they were hopeful that fuel companies would also begin voluntarily displaying the label at fuel pumps, so that motorists seeking greener options would feel assured that their purchase was making a contribution to the environment.
Commission officials also said they wanted to use a light touch in regulating how biofuels were labeled, so that companies achieving higher-than-average reductions in greenhouse gases compared with fossil fuels, or companies applying even more ambitious sustainability criteria, could devise their own certification programs.