A draft Commission impact assessment, obtained by EurActiv last week, indicates that the greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels such as palm oil, soybean and rapeseed may exceed those of fossil fuels when wider factors are considered.
This is because tropical forests and wetlands are often cleared to compensate for lands taken to grow biofuels elsewhere, a process known as indirect land use change, or ILUC.
“Personally, I’ve always been very cautious on biofuels,” Hedegaard told EurActiv in an interview. “It’s great to see the potential in new technologies, but we should take very much care in Europe that we are now not establishing a new big industry that we then - after some time - say, wow, that was not so good.”
She said the Commission was not backtracking on its commitment in the Renewable Energy Directive to provide 10% of transport fuels from biofuels and other green alternatives by 2020 but urged caution as the science was still evolving.
UN sustainability report
"Climate is a threat multiplier in many developing countries," Hedegaard said, making crises "even worse" like for example in the Horn of Africa.
"In Thailand, the world’s largest rice producer, one-fifth of the harvest rotted due to flooding. That’s the kind of interlinkage there is," she said.
"When you have still more people, wanting still more commodities, demanding still more food, still more energy, still more water, and on top of that as an overarching challenge, you also have climate change, then you really have the recipe for a lot more problems if you just continue business as usual instead of rethinking your growth model."
The UN panel's final report, 'Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing', included 56 recommendations to put sustainable development into economic policy.
Hedegaard welcomed progress made at the UN climate summit in Durban over a green fund to assist poorer regions of the world deal with the effects of climate change. But she also said public money could only play a limited part.
"There is no way that you can allocate or re-direct the money that you need and the kinds of investments that you need – for instance in access to sustainable energy – only through public money. You really have to make this a good business case, for institutional investors, for pension funds, for lots of private capital."
Science on biofuels 'not that well developed'
Asked about Europe's energy diversification policies and the effects that biofuel cultivation may have in the developing world, Hedegaard called for caution.
In its directives on biofuels in 2003 and renewable energy in 2009, the Commission backed plant-based alternatives for transport and energy as part of Europe’s push to cut carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants by 2020 and beyond.
Yet the policies have faced mounting criticism amid evidence that biofuels are not as effective at reducing greenhouse gases as long claimed, and concern that cultivation harms the ecology and food supplies of developing countries eager to supply the European market.
Hedegaard, who became commissioner two years ago, said “the knowledge and the science were not that well developed at that time, so now we have been struggling to try to get a defined indirect land use factor in.”
The Commission is expected to presents its ILUC findings within a few weeks.
Hedegaard said the Commission “has no problems with sustainable biofuels – and there are sustainable biofuels – but there are also biofuels where you could say what it takes away from CO2 is not less than fossil fuels, in some instances it’s even more."
“And that’s of course not a clever strategy if we ask member states to replace fossils fuels with something that is not better than fossil fuels."
Paying the price for biofuels
Meanwhile, two reports released today (2 February) by the Friends of the Earth and ActionAid campaign groups contend that biofuels do little to combat climate change, while pushing up prices for European motorists, who stand to pay an additional €18 billion a year for petrol and diesel as a result.
The research predicts that by 2020, bioethanol would be €0.19-€0.41 more expensive than petrol per litre, and biodiesel €0.35-€0.50 dearer. The study was carried out by the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Global Subsidies Initiative and the Fifo Institute for Public Economics at the University of Cologne.
Assuming that these costs are passed on to the consumer, by 2020, extra annual costs for UK motorists are predicted at between €1.25 billion and €2.28 billion, and for German drivers at between €1.37 billion and €2.15 billion.
Yet the authors identify government agricultural subsidies for biofuels production in Germany alone amounting to some €370 million.
“Europe’s squeezed consumers and taxpayers are paying the price for a flawed green policy that delivers no environmental benefits,” said Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.
“Motorists and the environment will bear the brunt of these ill-conceived biofuel targets – with higher prices at the pump and higher CO2 emissions.”
Across the EU’s 27 countries, the hidden costs of biofuels measured over the 2010-2020 period could be as high as €126 billion, the reports say.
After criticism that biofuels imported from developing countries were taxing land and water, and diverting attention from food to fuel crops, the EU began implementing policies that encouraged more sustainable fuel sources, such as vegetable oil waste from restaurant and industrial use.