Controversy mounts over EU biofuels fall-out


Fresh controversy is mounting within the European Union over biofuels and their unintended impact on tropical forests and wetlands, documents show.

One leaked document from the EU's executive, the European Commission, suggests biofuel from palm oil might get a boost from new environmental criteria under development.

But another contains a warning from a top official that taking full account of the carbon footprint of biofuels might "kill" an EU industry with annual revenues of around $5 billion.

The European Union aims to get a tenth of its road fuels from renewable sources by the end of this decade, but has met with criticism that biofuels can force up food prices and do more harm than good in the fight against climate change.

Most of the 10% goal will be met through biofuels, creating a market coveted by EU farming nations, which produce about 10 billion litres a year, as well as exporters such as Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Environmentalists say biofuels made from grains and oilseeds are forcing farmers to expand agricultural land by hacking into rainforests and draining wetlands, known as "indirect land-use change" (ILUC).

Clearing and burning forests puts vast quantities of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, so the EU risks promoting damage to the climate by creating such a valuable market.

To counter that risk, strict environmental criteria have been put in place.

The Commission has also been looking at introducing new rules to curb the impact of ILUC, but its progress had been complicated by conflicting opinions among specialists on trade, agriculture, energy and environment.

The stakes are high for European biofuel producers.

Negative light

"An unguided use of ILUC would kill biofuels in the EU," a senior agriculture official in the Commission wrote to a top energy official in a letter seen by Reuters.

As part of its research, the EU executive has received new scientific reports casting a new negative light on biofuels due to their indirect impact on land use, but has not made them public, says environmental group T&E.

The group has made a legal request to the Commission for the documents, but it has so far taken more than three-times the statutory 30 days to provide them.

"These reports need to be released so the public can see the full facts," said T&E campaigner Nusa Urbancic. "What is especially worrying is that we are seeing a pattern of manipulation of the science."

Commission officials said their research included hundreds of documents, making it difficult to meet T&E's request.

"The Commission is taking indirect land use change emissions from biofuels very seriously, and is conducting a large amount of work, including modelling work, in order to understand this issue with the best science available," said Marlene Holzner, spokeswoman for Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger.

"If the final results of this work show that indirect land use change emissions from biofuels are significant, then the Commission will need to consider what would be the appropriate policy response," she added.

A recent Commission document on biofuels appeared to wave through the palm oil industry, which stands accused of cutting down tropical forests in Malaysia and Indonesia to make way for plantations.

"A change from forest to oil palm plantation would not per se constitute a breach of the criterion," said the document seen by Reuters (EURACTIV 03/02/10).

Holzner cautioned against drawing any conclusions from an unfinished draft.

"EU policy promotes only those biofuels which positively contribute towards our ambitions to decarbonise our energy systems," she added.

(EURACTIV with Reuters.)

In December 2008, EU leaders reached agreement on a new Renewable Energy Directive, which requires each member state to satisfy 10% of its transport fuel needs from renewable sources, including biofuels, hydrogen and green electricity, by 2020 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier).

The directive also established sustainability criteria for biofuels. It obliges the bloc to ensure that biofuels offer at least 35% carbon emission savings compared to fossil fuels. The figure rises to 50% as of 2017 and 60% as of 2018 (EURACTIV 05/12/08).

However, concerns have been raised that increased biofuel production would result in massive deforestation and have severe implications for food security, as energy crops replace other land uses (so-called 'indirect land-use change').

The Renewable Energy Directive and the Fuel Quality Directive, agreed as part of the EU's climate change and energy package in December last year, require the European Commission to compile a report "reviewing the impact of indirect land-use change on greenhouse gas emissions" and to seek ways to minimise its impact.

  • March 2010: Commission expected to present sustainability criteria for biofuels in the EU.

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