Europe’s two-faced approach to poverty eradication

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When EU governments vote on a measure to limit indirect emissions from biofuels later today - and again on 12 December - they must view it as a test of their commitment to mitigate climate change, and improve food security and human rights, argue Laura Sullivan and Robbie Blake.

Laura Sullivan is EU advocacy coordinator for ActionAid International, and Robbie Blake is a biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.

Picture the scene: a huge exhibition arena in Brussels packed with people like the President of Liberia, EU Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, various CEOs, the President of Europe’s confederation of Development NGOs – all there to discuss Europe’s role in poverty eradication.  Welcome to the European Development Days – bubbling with coffee, croissants and chatter about how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and their replacement in 2015. There are discussions about how to involve the private sector in fighting poverty, and corporate sponsored innovations to deal with the challenge of energy supply in developing countries. 

But in the midst of this mêlée, is the EU missing a fundamental point? Beyond well-meaning ‘corporate social responsibility’ projects, what about the basic duty of corporations to respect the rights of people and the environment as they carry out their business – and the EU’s responsibility to ensure its policies do not undermine development? Taking energy as an example, what about the fact that we are currently scaling up production of biofuels in some of the poorest communities in the world, to meet EU targets, with sometimes appalling consequences for those communities and the environment?

By 2020, 40% of EU biodiesel will be imported from countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Argentina – from palm oil and soy plantations which are fast encroaching on crucial ecosystems and some of the poorest and most marginalized communities in the world. This, in order to fulfill the EU Renewable Energy Directive’s 10% target for transport energy, which is demanding large increases in food and land guzzling ‘first generation’ biofuels, accompanied by packages of subsidies that currently amount to 6 billion Euros per year. 

Development and green NGOs in Europe and our partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America have campaigned for five years to bring attention to the fact that the EU biofuels policy does not add up.  Whereas there are examples of small-scale sustainable projects providing local sources of bio-energy to communities in the developing world; it’s not this bottom-up model that will fulfill this EU target. This EU biofuel policy is of a different nature, demanding such quantities of food, land and water that it contributes to driving global food price volatility, land grabs and environmental degradation – without contributing to the fight against climate change.

In October 2012, those concerned by these developments witnessed a flicker of hope when the European Commission as a whole proposed to limit the amount of that energy coming from food crops to 5%, potentially halving the market for biofuels. Some 11 months later the Parliament weakened that to 6%. Tomorrow, our member states, led by the Lithuanian Presidency, will propose to bring this up to 7% and to further weaken carbon saving measures – virtually restoring business as usual.

NGOs are disappointed at suggestions that the UK – a champion on poverty and hunger eradication – may be about to drop its commitment to a 5% limit on food-based biofuels in exchange for a chance to water down the EU’s 20-20-20 renewable energy package with ‘creative’ accounting. This would set a dangerous precedent that robust targets for renewables can be bargained away.  We are pretty appalled that Germany, which originally proposed the 5% cap because of concerns about the sustainability of biofuels, has back-tracked and is even seeking guarantees on biofuels to 2030 well beyond the current timeline. And we are embarrassed for France, who made a lot of noise about ‘who will feed the world’ during its Presidencies of the EU in 2009 the G20 in 2012, but has led the way in watering down to 7% the Commission’s cap on food for fuel. These countries could be the leaders in putting EU transport policy onto a more sustainable footing.

Today (Friday 29 November), EU governments will put their cards on the table at the Coreper meeting of national ambassadors, and on December 12th EU Energy Ministers will vote on the issue of biofuels. They need to know that they will be judged on the grounds of their commitment to climate change, to food security and to human rights, and on their ability to right the wrong of a biofuels policy that should never have been put in place in the first place.

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