Sunday

20th Jan 2019

The 'war' on biofuels comes to Brussels

  • Sugar cane - destined for Europe's fuel tanks? (Photo: Wikipedia)

EU leaders have just agreed to try and get legislation on the bloc's ambitious green targets approved by early next year but criticism about the role of biofuels as part of the pollution-reducing measures has been growing.

The increasing debate about whether EU support for the production of biofuels – it wants them to account for 10 percent of fuel for transport by 2020 - would actually contribute to environmental damage as well as pushing up world food prices is being conducted globally.

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What was once seen as the saviour of the world's energy needs and a replacement for climate-destructive fossil fuels, biofuels – fuels developed from plant sources rather than oil - have in the last few months come under open assault from environmental groups, the United Nations, development NGOS, human rights groups and even third-world peasant organisations.

The United Nations World Food Programme and development NGOs worry that the act of combining markets for fuel and for food will cause – or is already causing – the prices of staple food items to skyrocket, opening up a new era of world hunger.

Last week, the head of the UN's World Food Programme, Josette Sheeran, said that high oil prices, low food stocks and the push for biofuels was creating a "perfect storm" that will cause "new hunger" around the world and called on the EU to "give more thought to its biofuels policy and targets."

Critics warn that this creates additional anticipated demand atop the already substantial existing demand for biofuels, pushing up the price of crops grown for both food and fuel such as corn and soy and encouraging deforestation and the ripping up of peat bogs as agribusinesses seek more land to grow such plants.

On Thursday (6 March), the UK government's chief scientific advisor, Professor John Beddington, warned that the rush towards biofuels is threatening world food production and the lives of billions around the planet.

Meanwhile, peasant organisations such as Movimiento Sim Terra, the Brazilian landless workers' movement complain that the profits from biofuels are accruing to large landowners rather than small-scale farmers.

Human rights groups in Indonesia recently warned that the ripping up of rainforest and peat bogs in the country is not only massively expanding the country's greenhouse gas emissions, but also leading to human rights abuses.

'Why no sustainable criteria for oil?'

Brazil, one of the biggest producers of the controversial fuels in the world, is mounting a public relations offensive in Brussels in defense of their sugar-cane based bioethanol, concerned that Europe is getting cold feet over it biofuel target.

"There are huge, immense resources being put into the war against biofuels by those who are producing other kinds of fuels," Brazilian ambassador to the European Communities Maria Celina de Azevedo Rodrigues told EUobserver.

"All the studies and research are being financed by these people who don't want change because they have a lot to lose."

"Why is the EU getting cold feet?" asked the ambassador. "Because the opposition is better organised."

Brazil is particularly worried about what euro-deputies may do to the pending legislation.

"The [European] parliament is very susceptible to public opinion," she said. "I think it can be more easily convinced by public opinion, more than the member states."

Sugar cane today takes up 0.4 percent of Brazil's territory, while the Amazon rainforest covers some 40 percent of the country. So even if all the sugar cane for ethanol was planted in the Amazon, points out the ambassador, this would still amount to just one percent of the Amazon.

"It does bother me quite a lot when people talk about social and environmental consequences of biofuels. Nobody has ever worried about social and environmental problems of oil production. Why are there double standards?

"I would like to see people look at the social and environmental criteria for the expoitation of oil. if they're going to have them for us, they should have them for everybody."

The embassy is backed up in its Brussels campaign by Unica, the Brazilian sugar cane industry association, which is opening an office in Brussels in April to promote ethanol as a clean, renewable fuel.

Unica also announced in January a two-year partnership with the Brazilian government's trade and investment agency, hoping to turn the biofuel debate in the European capital back in a direction more favourable to Brazil.

The sugar association concedes that there are bad biofuels being produced but says this is not the case for Brazilian ethanol.

"European green groups are treating biofuels as a single product, but there are different feedstocks, differences in where they are produced and how they are produced," she points out. "Their performance should be measured biofuel by biofuel."

Not everybody in Brazil however supports the rush for biofuels. The Movimiento Sim Terra (MST), the landless workers' movement, a peasants' rights organisation, argues that biofuel production in Brazil for the most part consists of monoculture plantations and results in a concentration of land in the hands of agribusiness – land once used by subsistance farmers who have been violently expelled.

The group points out that sugar cane is not the only biofuel and bio-energy crop cultivated in the country. Sugar cane covers some 6.2 million hectares, but there are an additional 22.2 million hectares used in soy production, and another 3 million for eucalyptus.

Low harvests, export restrictions

The commission's energy and agriculture departments remain robust in their support for biofuels.

"We don't share the UK advisor's view or those of the UN," countered Ferran Tarradellas, the energy commissioner's spokesperson.

"High food prices right now are instead a product of low harvests, growing demand in Asia and export restrictions in Ukraine and Russia, who are two of the main suppliers of grain to the EU."

"Moreover, our target is quite a low one – only 10 percent," he said. "In any case, transport costs make up a significant part of the price of food items. If we can lower the cost of transport by using biofuels instead of fossil fuels, then our targets could actually bring food prices down.

Agriculture spokesperson Michael Mann felt that Washington bore the main responsibility: "It's clear that the US move towards ethanol is having a marked effect on commodity prices, as a lot of maize is being moved into bioethanol production.

"Whereas any effect the EU may be having is utterly exaggerated," he said. "We're not going to follow their example."

"In Europe, we use less than two percent of our cereals for the production of biofuels, so this can't contribute to higher food prices, let alone food shortages," he added, pointing out that the commission proposals aim to move away from those biofuels that compete with food as fast as possible and move to second generation biofuels – such as those made from wood chips, slurry waste, grass and straw.

However, following this week's summit of European leaders, Prime Minister Janez Jansa of Solvenia, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said Europe may reconsider its strategy: "We're not excluding the possibility that we'll have to amend or revise our goals," he said, adding: "We have to address these concerns by the relevant analysis."

What is certain is that the commission has opened a can of worms with its biofuels target – a battle set to intensify now that the legislation is to pass into the hands of the European Parliament and member states before its final approval.

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