EU biofuel policy will increase CO2 emissions, study says
An EU target to produce 10 percent of transport energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 will actually increase the level of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the bloc unless changes are made, an independent study has said.
Forecast increases in EU biofuel use as a result of the policy goal will lead to a mass conversion of natural habitats into fields of biofuel crops as overseas producers strive to meet the added demand, the report published by the Institute for European Environmental Policy on Monday (8 November) says.
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Natural lands, including rainforests and savannah, store and sequester carbon in their soil and biomass as plants grow each year, making them important components in the flight against climate change, caused by rising CO2 levels.
"The additional demand for these fuels is anticipated to lead to between 4.1 and 6.9 million hectares of indirect land use change (ILUC), i.e. an area equivalent to just larger than Belgium to just under that of the Republic of Ireland," says the report, which is backed by a large number of environmental and development NGOs.
The document's authors calculated these figures using recently released studies by the European Commission, based on data from 23 member state plans (NREAPs) which outline how national governments intend to reach the renewable energy target, outlined in the bloc's 2009 Renewable Energy Directive.
"[The] use of additional conventional biofuels up to 2020 on the scale anticipated in the 23 NREAPs would lead to between 80.5 percent and 167 precent more greenhouse gas emissions than meeting the same need through fossil fuel use," says the report.
The damning conclusion comes at a critical juncture in the EU legislative process, with the commission due to release its own report on land use change by the end of this year.
This in turn is likely to lead to new a legislative proposal next year, possibly calling for indirect land use change effects to be taken into account when selecting which biofuels member states should use to reach the 10 percent transport target.
For its part, the commission has rejected the main findings of Monday's report, saying the EU has enough unused agricultural land to meet the expected increase in biofuel demand. "The renewable energy directive says very clearly that it is not allowed to to chop down forests to produce biofuels," an official said.
The high-stakes game has resulted in a pitched battle in Brussels, as both biofuel producers and environmental NGOs seek to gain the upper hand.
The Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) is among those who say the recent commission studies are inherently flawed, failing to take into account important characteristics of certain individual states.
Emmanuel Desplechin, the group's chief representative to the EU, dismissed the problem of indirect land changes and pointed to a Brazilian government plan that forbids sugarcane production in environmentally sensitive areas. "The EU studies failed to use enough international experts who can point these issues out," he told this website.
The growing debate has refocused some attention on long-awaited second generation biofuels, those produced from residual non-food parts of current crops, such as stems and leaves, rather than the food crop itself as is the case for current biofuels.
The commission has tried to promote member-state use of second generation fuels by means of a 'double counting' system under the Renewable Energy Directive, but national plans make little reference to them.
"While the commission promised the directive would stimulate greater use of second-generation biofuels - it is clear from member states' targets that this was a total deception, or at least overblown optimism," said Friends of the Earth campaigner Robbie Blake.
Some businesses are also unhappy with the slow progress in this area.
"The spirit of the renewable energy directive is good but the double-counting system is not enough," Lars Hansen, president of Novozymes Europe, told EUobserver in a recent interview.
The Danish company produces enzymes needed to break down tough agricultural waste products and allow biofuels to be produced. "Our message is that the technique is ready but that its not going to move unless the regulatory framework is correct," he said.
A number of green groups also criticise second-generation biofuel production, arguing that the fuel requires increased use of fertiliser to replace lost soil nutrients.