Jack Rosebro suggests that a second look at biofuels is occuring in Europe. He bases his observations on remarks made by European heads of state following the European Council’s annual Spring Summit, which was held last week in Brussels.
The European Commission had had aspirations to boost the use of biofuels in European transport to 10% of total use by 2020. They may well need to revise such expectations if williing to address new concerns about biofuels.
From the viewpoint of sustainability, almost all biofuels used today result in more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuel. Furthermore, “increased biofuel production is already impacting food costs and water supplies.” And, greater cultivation of food and fuel crops accelerates deforestation, which reduces the biosphere’s carbon sinks. There is a multiplier effect from fuel crops that results in an intensification of man-made greenhouse gas production even when use of the fuel by the transportation sector produces fewer emissions than standard fuel.
European Union officials have looked at biofuels with some interest since at least 2001 and in 2002 set an initial target of 5.75% biofuels for the transport sector, to be attained by 2010.2 However, biofuels made up just 1% of transport fuel by 2005. In March 2007, following growing concerns over energy security and climate change, EU leaders proposed raising the target to 10% by 20203 (earlier post). That target was contingent on the expected development of so-called “biofuels 2.0” via technological breakthroughs; in other words, sustainable biofuels at competitive prices:
The binding character of this target is appropriate, subject to production being sustainable, second-generation biofuels becoming commercially available, and the Fuel Quality Directive being amended accordingly to allow for adequate levels of blending.
Despite significant concerns expressed by the EU’s own Economic and Social Committee (earlier post), as well as many NGOs, the proposed 10% target was folded into an EU directive on the “Promotion of the Use of Energy From Renewable Sources”, a draft of which was released on 23 January 2008, in part because an April 2007 assessment of the effects of biofuel production4 had found:
…the impact on land use in the EU-27 is relatively modest. About 15% of arable land would be used.
That assessment, however, did not consider the effects of biofuel production outside of EU member states. Yet negative effects of biofuel demand from the West were already apparent elsewhere by 2007.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), for example, had originally estimated in 2002 that 98% of Indonesia’s ancient rain forests would be gone by 2032, caused largely by logging and the operation of pulp plantations. But by 2007—the year that the EU proposed to increase its future dependency on biofuels to 10%—UNEP found that the rainforests were likely to disappear a decade sooner, with lowland forests vanishing as well, due to an accelerated rate of deforestation coupled with “recent widespread investment in oil palm plantations and biodiesel refineries.”5
The rainforests of Indonesia are some of the last remaining habitats of orangutans. The preservation of biodiversity is, by coincidence, a priority of the European Council, which took the opportunity at last week’s summit to encourage Member States and the European Commission “to strengthen efforts aimed at halting biodiversity loss by 2010 and beyond.” Deforestation such as that suffered by Indonesia is considered to be among the most aggressive drivers of climate change, second only to the anthropogenic production of greenhouse gases.
The potential for biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—as compared to conventional fuels—has also been called into question by a range of reports. In December 2006, a study of agricultural land made from drained peatlands in Southeast Asia concluded that the production of biodiesel from palm oil can, in some cases, create up to ten times more carbon dioxide than conventional diesel fuel.6 And last September, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) issued a report titled “Biofuels: Is The Cure Worse Than The Disease?”7 (earlier post), which noted that the effects of first generation biofuel technologies on food prices and the environment “suggest that the potential of conventional technologies might be closer to current production levels.”
Three sustainability criteria for biofuels:
Land with high carbon stocks should not be converted for biofuel production;
Land with high biodiversity should not be converted for biofuel production; and
Biofuels should achieve a minimum level of greenhouse gas savings (carbon stock losses from land use change would not be included in the calculation).
The first two criteria appear to be unenforceable, as “high carbon stocks” and “high biodiversity” are left undefined. The last criterion is telling: according to the Directive, if a high-density carbon sink such as an old-growth forest is cut down to make way for a low-density, intermittent carbon sink such as a soybean field, any so-called greenhouse gas savings would be calculated as if the rainforest never existed. Furthermore, no criteria exist to ensure that the production of biofuels does not erode food supply. However, the draft directive indicates that public consultations on the three criteria prior to their publication was positive:
In the responses, there is general support for such criteria from most respondents, with many proposing further reinforcements to the scheme.
In truth, last January was rocky for proponents of biofuel expansion in Europe. On the ninth of that month, seventeen NGOs, including Friends Of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace Europe, sent a letter to one of the European Commission’s most ardent biofuels enthusiasts, energy commissioner Andris Piebalgs, noting that the biofuels directive lacked standards to prevent the destruction of carbon sinks to create biofuel feedstocks, or to prevent social impacts:
The scramble to supply European markets [with biofuels] is already causing frequent land disputes, forced evictions… and poor working conditions.
On the fourteenth, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas admitted in a BBC interview broadcast that “we [the Commission] have seen that the environmental problems caused by biofuels and also the social problems are bigger than we thought they were.”
A few days later, an unpublished working paper by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) was leaked to the media. In the document, EU scientists wrote “…the uncertainty is too great to say whether the EU 10% biofuels target will save greenhouse gas or not.” Rob Vierhout, secretary general of the European Bioethanol Fuel Association, or eBIO, retorted that “it has always been the agenda of the JRC to discredit biofuels ever since they started their Well-to-Wheel project with the oil and car industry.”
Concerns about the effect of increased biofuel production on food, water, and greenhouse gas production have not swayed Commissioner Piebalgs, who proclaimed yesterday on his official blog:
I myself drive an ethanol-powered Saab 9-5 and certainly I would not even think of it if I had the slightest suspicion that I’m contributing in any way to global warming, or, even worse, to an international genocide. This is why I consider that it is essential to regain a sense of proportion in this debate and try to have a discussion on this issue that is less intemperate and one-sided.8
It is not known whether or not Piebalgs has studied last week’s report “Climate change and international security”9 (earlier post), which was produced at the request of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and released to the public just prior to the summit. The report painted a grim portrait of future agricultural production and access to water in many parts of the world, including key trade partners with Europe, if the effects of climate change prove to be significant.
Although Solana’s report raised red flags by examining the potential effects of warming regions exclusive of the burdens of biofuel production, there is widespread concern that the worldwide agricultural sector could be deprived of arable land needed to meet rising food demand, at a time when global warming is already causing desertification in many areas.
Some of the most strident opposition to biofuels has come from the UK, which has already passed a law mandating that at least 5% of commercially available transport fuel be biofuels. Many of that country’s NGOs refer to biofuels as agrofuels, rejecting the prefix “bio” as a misleading association of fuel with life. Popular environmental writer George Monbiot of The Guardian called for a five-year moratorium on biofuels immediately after the EU’s 2020 biofuel target proposal moved forward last year.
And building on the call for “caution in the expansion of global biofuel demand” in Part I of the UK’s King Review of Low-Carbon Cars, Part II10 (earlier post) has advocated “moving the short-term focus back from biofuels to automotive technology” and “revising the EU Fuel Quality Directive [from which arises the 10% biofuel target] downward.”
The EU presidency rotates next to France in July. With regard to biofuels, France’s Europe Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet said “it will belong to the French Presidency to see where we go on this but there is no definite position for the moment. A review has not been excluded.” If the directive is finalized, it will be submitted to the European Parliament as legislation.
2 Council of the European Union, November 2002: Directive 2002/…/ EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the promotion of the use of biofuels or other renewable fuels for transport (draft)
4 European Commission, April 2007: “The impact of a minimum 10% obligation for biofuel use in the EU-27 in 2020 on agricultural market”
5 UNEP and UNESCO, February 2007: “The Last Stand of the Orangutan. State of Emergency: Illegal Logging, Fire and Palm Oil in Indonesia’s National Parks”
9 Council of the European Union, March 3, 2008: “Climate change and international security”
10 Her Majesty’s Treasury, UK: The King Review of low-carbon cars, part II: recommendations for action