Scrapping EU biofuels targets is the right thing to do

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Sun rises over a biofuels crop. [TheFriendlyFiend/Flickr]

The biofuel lobby decries plans to scrap biofuel targets. Ending support for harmful and costly biofuels is the only right thing to do, writes Marc-Olivier Herman.

Marc-Olivier Herman is EU economic justice policy lead for Oxfam International.

Work on the EU’s post-2020 bioenergy policy has now started in earnest. On 12 May, the European Commission invited stakeholders to a full day meeting to discuss sustainability concerns and started handling the hundreds of contributions it received to its public consultation on the issue.

With the Commission expected to propose new legislation later this year, the biofuel industry is going on the offensive, calling the proposal to drop targets and other support measures for biofuel “recklessly irresponsible” and “populist”. This name-calling by the industry should not distract European policy makers from the all-important task of learning the lessons from today’s policy failure.

Europe’s biofuel consumption is hurting the climate, not helping it

The best available science on biofuel emissions shows Europe’s consumption of biofuels is harming the climate not helping it. Transport & Environment has crunched the data from a recent and comprehensive study on biofuel emissions ordered by the European Commission. It concluded that by 2020, the EU’s transport emissions will have increased by 3,5% due to biofuel consumption, not decreased.

The cause for this is not only the eye-watering amounts of emissions of imported biofuels and feedstocks. Biodiesel made from palm oil for example emits three times as much CO2 as fossil diesel because it displaces agriculture into tropical forests and peatlands.

‘Home-grown biofuels’ are part of the problem too. Biodiesel made from rapeseed and bioethanol made from barley emit roughly 20% more than diesel or petrol. Sunflower biodiesel and wheat ethanol are approximately as polluting as the fossil fuel they replace. Together, these harmful European biofuels are projected to make up close to 40% of Europe’s biofuel consumption in 2020 in spite of a newly introduced limit on the share of food-based biofuels.

The fact that land-based biofuels are damaging the climate and offering a fake solution to greening our transport is only part of the problem. They are also hurting vulnerable people around the world and our own economy here at home.

A hidden levy on food consumers

Research shows that EU biofuel policy relies on reduced food consumption to secure emission savings. The policy is based on models that assume a significant share of the crops diverted from the food and feed markets to produce energy are not replaced through the planting of additional crops. This leads inevitably to higher food prices, affecting the world’s poorest disproportionally. If this was not the case, emissions from ethanol made from corn and maize would be significantly higher than those from petrol.

In addition to imposing a hidden levy on the poor by increasing food prices, policies mandating biofuel consumption pose a permanent threat to global food security. They add a very large and inflexible demand for basic agricultural commodities.

When there are shortages on food markets due to weather events, trade disruptions or low stocks, such biofuel mandates act as shock multipliers. Since the EU has started promoting biofuels, through voluntary targets in 2003 and then binding targets in 2009, the world has been hit by two major food price spikes pushing tens of millions into poverty. International development agencies have recommended that governments remove “policies that subsidise (or mandate) biofuels production or consumption”.

Pushing people off their land

European biofuels, even if their feedstocks are ‘home grown’, not only displace agriculture onto new land and destroy forests elsewhere in the world, they also displace people and destroy their livelihoods.

When a group of indigenous, community and civil society leaders from around the world visited Brussels and other European capitals last month to call for action to stop land grabbing and abuses linked to global palm oil supply chains, they had a clear message: human rights violations are being committed by an industry that is expanding due to the EU’s demand for palm oil and bioenergy. Similar rights violations are associated with the expansion of other agricultural commodities used to make biodiesel or ethanol, such as soy and sugar cane.

Ending support for biofuels will spur the economy

In spite of the policy’s hazards, is there an overriding economic interest for Europe to continue to promote harmful biofuels? Looking at the European Commission’s own data on the European bioeconomy it is nowhere to be found.

Biofuels are directly responsible far less than 1% of the economic output and jobs of the European bioeconomy. According to the Commission’s projections, if the current level of support for biofuels is maintained, a small increase could be generated by 2030. The problem is that growth in the bioenergy sector would come at a high cost to other parts of the bioeconomy and to the wider economy. Ending biofuel mandates would provide a general impetus to the European economy, not harm it.

No one expects a small but well-organised industry that has gorged on subsidies, tax breaks and blending obligations for over a decade to give up its life line without putting up a fight. For biofuel industry representatives, ending state support would indeed be “catastrophic” and “a major folly”. In light of the havoc wreaked by the EU’s current biofuel policy however, for the rest of us living on this planet and taking part in the economy, scrapping targets is the only right thing to do.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe