Wood, food or biofuels?

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The debate on biofuels is heating up, with the Commission and the Greens guarding against potential negative impacts such as rainforest depletion in Brazil and increased competition with wood and food production.

In an 'energy and climate change package' put forward on 10 January 2007, the Commission proposed that 10% of all transport fuels in the EU be produced from biofuels by 2020. This is up from the 5.75% target for 2010 laid down in the EU biofuels directive, adopted in 2003.

Biodiesel and ethanol, the most common biofuels in use today, are produced mainly from agricultural crops: sugar cane, soybean rapeseed and corn.

However, these crops are often water intensive and pose a number of environmental problems related to land use and soil degradation.

This is why the Commission favours so-called 'second-generation' biofuels which are more efficient and less problematic from an environmental viewpoint. These are typically made from agricultural residues and 'woody' sources such as straw, timber, woodchips and manure (see Commission public consultation on biofuels). They can be turned into high-value products such as bioplastics and other green materials, using so-called 'green chemistry' processes (see EurActiv LinksDossier on sustainable chemistry).

But these more energy-efficient biofuels are still only at the development stage and require bio-refineries to be built up to process this emerging type of feedstock.

Denmark is at the forefront of this development, with the announcement in June 2006 of construction beginning on what will be Europe's largest biorefinery (€13.4 million plus €26.8m from the government) to produce cellulose ethanol.

Positions: 

Green MEPs  are increasingly sceptical that biofuels can replace oil in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner.

On 30 January, the Greens launched a campaign against the unguarded promotion of 'plant fuels' produced from agricultural crops, arguing that studies indicate that they may take more energy to produce than they would offer in return.

But they point to another growing concern: the impact on farming. They say that a big push for biofuels could take land away from the food sector.

"Plant fuels are touted publicly as the solution to the problems of oil dependence and climate change, while being quietly pushed in the EU as the way to wean Europe's farmers off CAP subsidies," said Green MEP Friedrich Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdorf, who is also vice-president of the Parliament's Agriculture Committee.

"Diverting scarce food resources from dinner tables to petrol tanks will increasingly place pressure on global food prices, meaning the poorest will go hungry," he added.

The Greens argue that big biofuels development in Europe would also have an impact on countries such as Brazil, where rainforests crucial for absorbing greenhouse gases will be knocked down to make more room for agricultural land. And because the ethanol produced in this way would need to be transported to Europe, they say that the result will be less forests and higher transport costs, both of which lead to increased CO2 emissions.

"The production of plant fuels is highly energy-intensive and often carbon negative, while the clearing of rain forests to facilitate the cultivation of plants for fuels also strips away the positive effects of plant fuels for our climate," said Green energy spokesperson Rebecca Harms.

The Greens' concerns were echoed by the Commission as well. In a speech on 29 January 2007, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: "If an increased use of biofuels means that more cutting of rainforest to make way for plantations is needed, then it is not acceptable."

In the same way, Dimas added: "It is not acceptable to place on the market biofuels that have been obtained through a production process that emits as much carbon dioxide as is saved from using them".

"Therefore, it is imperative that any support system for the production of these fuels must discourage the use of unsustainable production practices for biofuels."

"Second-generation biofuels need to enter to European markets as soon as possible as they are more promising both in terms of energy potential and of the limited impact on the environment."

Another concern relates to increased competition for wood resources as biofuels production rises.

study presented on 30 January by the Confederation of European Paper Industries claims that it is four times more economically viable to use wood as a paper-resource first than to use it for energy.

"As a result of sustainable forest management, Europe’s forests are increasing at an area of more than 4,000 football pitches per day," CEPI said.

However, it added that "increasing competition between wood for bio-energy and for the paper industry presents a new challenge." Refering to a study by the European Environment Agency, which showed a slowdown in forest growth, CEPI said it wondered "how more ambitious targets on wood for bio-energy could be met without risking the overall sustainability of Europe's forest and agricultural resources". CEPI advocates a more cautious approach: "One of the paper industry’s main raw materials, wood, is biomass, so we can optimise its use in the production process and then go on to generate renewable energy."

Biotech group EuropaBio has less reservations about biofuels, 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," said the group 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".

Timeline: 

A revision of the 2003 biofuels directive is scheduled to be proposed, together with a new framework directive on renewables, later in 2007 said Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, the Commission's energy spokesman.

The timing of the new proposal will depend on the outcome of the March summit of EU leaders, which will decide on the fate of the Commission's energy package. Depending on this, the Commission could put forward a proposal in July or September, Espuny indicated.

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