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28th Jan 2022

EU environment chief concerned by deforestation in Brazil

EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas hinted on Thursday (28 February) that biofuel development is contributing to deforestation in Brazil, even as the commission's own recently proposed climate package aims to see a massive increase in the use of the controversial fuels.

"The latest data on deforestation in Brazil is not good. It's really, really worrisome," said the commissioner in response to a question on European biofuel policy from the economy attaché of the Brazilian Mission to the European Communities, Marco Cabral.

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  • Mr Dimas spoke about "worrisome" data on deforestation in Brazil (Photo: Wikipedia)

The exchange took place at a morning policy briefing organised by the European Policy Centre think-tank outlining the commission's new climate and energy package – one of its goals is that it should have a ten percent use of biofuels in transport across Europe by 2020.

"Although President Lula has recently announced some special plans to halt deforestation, the latest figures are really very bad," said the commissioner.

Responding, Mr Cabral said that: "Brazil is afraid that the debate around biofuels is being dominated by emotion, misinformation and generalisations."

He said that only a fifth of Brazil's arable land is currently under cultivation and of this less than four percent is used for ethanol, while fuelling 48 percent of the country's passenger vehicles.

His comments reflect concern in Brazil about the growing pressure in Europe for reducing or even eliminating these biofuels targets, which some say contribute to environmental problems and food shortages as land is cleared to grow biofuels.

The commissioner did however praise the country for the energy efficiency of the biofuel source favoured by Brazil's policies.

While Brazil's ethanol industry favours sugar cane as its source plant, the United States ethanol fuel is based largely on maize. Some 69 percent of the world's supply of ethanol comes from Brazil and the US.

"Sugar cane is much more efficient than corn," said the commissioner "so really, it's one of best types of first-generation biofuel, if not the best."

Concern in the commission's environment unit

The commissioner's spokesperson, Barbara Helfferich, commenting on the commissioner's strong words on deforestation but praise for sugar cane as a biofuels source, said that the commissioner is trying to offer a nuanced approach to the issue, but raises concerns every time he meets Brazilian officials.

"There is of course the sustainability criteria [for the use of biofuels in transport] in the commission's proposals," she said, "but we have to ensure that we are not held hostage by our own targets if they result in our using those biofuels that contribute to climate change."

Some commission officials told the EUobserver that they are worried that the worsening deforestation in Brazil is indeed linked to the country's biofuels strategy.

"Look, it's an understandable business for Brazil to be in, given the demand, but it should not be aggravating the dire threat of deforestation," said one official.

By contrast, the energy department in the commission rejected any link between the EU biofuels policy and deforestation in Brazil, with a spokesman saying "we don't see any evidence of the link."

"There's no way – the proposals were only announced, what, a month ago?"

He pointed both to the EU's own sustainability criteria for accepting biofuels as well as the positive consequences it is having in Brazil.

"It would be a shame if we were to hamper these positive effects."

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