EU commission to champion bio-fuels and chemicals

13.02.12 @ 08:22

  1. By Valentina Pop
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BRUSSELS - Future EU spending on agriculture, research and energy should promote the "bio-economy" instead of fossil-based chemicals and fuels, the European Commission says.

  • Greenpeace: 'This initiative is in real danger of channelling taxes to areas with massive environmental warning signs hanging over them' (Photo: jurvetson)

Agricultural waste used as fuel for energy plants, plastic made out of organic compounds instead of oil-based chemicals, bio-enzymes that let detergents clean laundry at lower temperatures than conventional substitutes - these are just a few examples of what the EU executive aims to sponsor under the label "bio-economy."

Its communication - a non-binding strategy paper due to be published on Monday (13 February) and seen by EUobserver - describes the sector as "[contributing] to a lower emission and more resource efficient society that reconciles food security with the sustainable use of renewable resources for industrial purposes and environmental protection."

The commission estimates that the bio-economy already creates an annual turnover of €2 trillion and employs 22 million people. But a more "integrated framework" of funding and regulation could create another 400,000 jobs and bring about a 0.4 percent rise in the bloc's GDP while lowering carbon emissions.

It has earmarked €80 billion in the 2014-2020 EU budget for related initiatives in research and innovation, agriculture, fisheries, energy efficiency, bio-technology, computer science and nano-technology.

It is also reviewing its agriculture and fisheries policies to fit more environment-friendly targets and to meet new demand for bio-waste in the energy and food industries.

"The EU pulp and paper and the chemical industries emit significant amounts of greenhouse gas and store important amounts of carbon in their products. Carbon, energy and water intensive production processes need to be substituted by more resource efficient and environmentally friendly ones wherever possible. This also applies to the replacement of traditional products from fossil resources by more sustainable bio-based or novel products," the communication says.

Industry representatives and green NGOs hve already lined up to criticise the initiative, albeit for different reasons.

For industry, the commission proposal fails to deliver concrete measures such as boosting supply - for instance by creating incentives for farmers to collect the agricultural waste that can be used for biomass-fuelled energy plants.

Ward Mosmuller from the Dutch bio-tech firm DSM - which began as a coal mining company in the early 1900s and is now a producer of bio-based chemicals, foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals - told this website the market still needs subsidies to compete with the oil-based chemical industry.

"The state of our industry is where oil was 100 years ago. But we will run out of oil much sooner than that, so we need to make sure this industry develops fast. There are a lot of good ideas in the commission's paper, but we need to make sure farmers are stimulated to collect the agricultural waste. In the US and Brazil there is already a big market with government support," he said.

Nour Amrani, from Danish bio-tech company Novozymes, also wants more "concrete measures."

"We will be working with the European Commission, the parliament and member states to take an interest in this. People should know that bio-economy reduces our oil dependence," she said.

Novozymes has developed technology which converts agricultural residues into 'second generation' bio-fuels. Unlike the controversial 'first generation' bio-fuels - derived directly from sugar cane, corn or palm oil - bio-waste does not drive food prices up and contribute to food scarcity in poor countries.

The commission paper does not clearly distinguish between the two categories of fuel, instead calling for "quality biomass" of either type to be "accessible at a competitive price without compromising food security."

Green groups say it also fails to take a position on genetically modified agriculture.

Jack Hunter from Greenpeace told EUobserver: "This initiative is in real danger of channelling taxes to areas with massive environmental warning signs hanging over them, such as genetic modification of food crops and harmful bio-fuels."

He added: "The EU should prioritise non-risky biotechnology, such as marker assisted selection, and funding for bio-fuels should only go to those that are truly sustainable."