Brussels biofuels push met with scepticism

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Plans to increase biofuel contribution to 10% of EU transport fuel by 2020 have been criticised by environmental NGOs, who increasingly believe that the promotion of biofuels may actually cause more harm than good.

Biofuels have been championed as a "carbon neutral" source of energy, since in theory their use does not emit more carbon dioxide than the amount absorbed during the growth of the plant. Moreover, biofuels may lead to a reduction in air pollution or a reduction of waste. 

The Commission argues that they these renewable fuels will create jobs and provide new sources of income for agriculture. They will also help to meet the Kyoto targets and to diversify Europe’s energy mix.

However, some NGOs argue that the production of biofuels may ultimately be detrimental, for a number of reasons:

  • Land upon which many poorer countries in the South depend on for food may be replaced with biofuel plantations with Europeans' reliance on an "automobile culture" leading to natural ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest in Brazil being replaced with soybean plantations;
  • it has been argued that it actually takes more energy to produce biofuels than is contained in the biofuels themselves;
  • building the infrastructure to service plantations will produce further environmental damage;
  • some chemicals used on the plantations are also criticised for their negative effects on human health;
  • finally, the use of genetically modified crops in the production of biofuels is highly controversial.

To solve some of these problems, the Commission plans to promote the development of so-called second generation biofuels which are produced from ligno-cellulosic or 'woody' sources such as straw, timber, woodchips or manure. 

It has argued that these are more favourable than the current "first generation" biofuels mainly produced from crops such as sugar beet and rapeseed due to their expected lower costs, more favourable GHG balance, energy output and better fuel quality. 

In addition, their ability to use a wider range of biomass feedstocks means that they compete less with food production (see Commission public consultation on biofuels). However, such second generation technology is still only at the development stage.

Positions: 

The European biotech sector says it supports EU initiatives to boost the use of biofuels, with industry group EuropaBio saying it "can and will play an important role in the development of second generation biofuels".

"Making ethanol fuel out of biomass is already a reality," says EuropaBio in a briefing paper on so-called white biotechnologies. "Thanks to the use of enzymes to break it down, the under-used resources of agricultural and forestry waste can be unlocked," it says, offering an opportunity for "alternative farm incomes".

But the European Chemicals Industry Council is more cautious. "CEFIC welcomes the recognition of biofuels as they could play an important role in the fight against climate change." However, it said it "questions the setting up of new ambitious targets before existing targets have been achieved". In the meantime, "CEFIC advises to analyse the reasons why existing targets will not be met by 2010."

In an open letter to the EU, Latin American NGOs criticised the disproportionate use of biofuels as one an aggravating cause of global warming, saying it will come at the expense of the South.

"It is most unlikely that Europe will ever achieve self- sufficiency in the production of biofuel from national production of energy crops and therefore it is very possible that this will be done at the expense of lands on which the food sovereignty of our countries depend," the group said.

Greenpeace also were sceptical, saying "Unlike the majority of renewable energy technologies, the production of biofuels is in many cases associated with grave environmental problems. Greenpeace is concerned that the Commission has yet to propose any convincing system that would guarantee their environmentally responsible production."

Jos Dings of Transport and Environment (T&E), a network of sustainable transport groups, criticised the lack of impact assessment in the Commission’s plan: "The European system bluntly dictates that 10% of the fuel used for transport should be biofuel regardless of whether it has been produced sustainably, regardless of the CO2 emissions released during production and regardless of whether other renewable energy sources might work better". 

The European Commission, whilst admitting that in some cases biofuels may not lead to savings in greenhouse gas emissions, said that it’s proposing “the introduction of an incentive/support system to avoid this and to encourage the development of "second-generation" biofuels.”

The European Bioethanal Fuel Association (eBIO) welcomed the minimum biofuel targets for 2020, saying "the Commission has clearly understood that a mandatory use of biofuels is the best way forward to reduce GHG emissions in the transport sector as well as our heavy dependency on imported fossil fuels".

Timeline: 

  • Late March: Commission expected to table a formal legislative proposal to increae the share of biofuels to a minimum of 10% of the EU's transport fuel mix by 2020.
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