27th Feb 2024

Biofuels - green or mean?

  • The EU emissions savings through biofuels depends on the way they are produced (Photo: European Community, 2006)

Using biofuels could be one of the ways the EU achieves its goal of being less dependent on fossil fuels from abroad and at the same time cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The European Commission's strategy on biofuels came out in February and attempts to set a plan for the member states to promote and prepare for large scale use of biofuels across the 25-nation bloc.

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Biofuels are made of the same products as fossil fuels - plants, trees and animal waste - except it can be produced straight from the product unlike fossil fuels that have been processed over millions of years.

Agricultural products grown for making biofuel include corn, soybeans, rapeseed and others.

There are two kinds of biofuels. Bio ethanol for example, made from corn, is similar to gasoline. Biodiesel is made from oil-based products such as soybean and palm oil and could replace diesel made from fossil fuels.

The similarity means that liquid biofuels can be integrated directly into fuel supply systems at gas stations and be used in the cars we have today with just small modifications.

With volatile oil prices and oil supplies predicted to run out in the near future, the commission is calling for a drastic cut in the use of fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas - for which the EU is the world’s biggest importer.

Transport is the most obvious sector for reducing oil usage. Not only does practically all energy used for transport come from oil, but this sector alone accounts for nearly one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU.

Tackling transport issues would also have the side-effect of helping the bloc reach its reduction in gas emissions targets under the international Kyoto treaty on climate change.

Mixed signals from member states

But member states as a whole have been dragging their feet on biofuels. A commission target of having two percent of member states’ energy supplied by biofuels by 2005 was not reached.

Similarly, a further target of 5.75 percent of energy market share by 2010 is set to be revised by the commission later this year.

Between member states themselves, there are great differences.

At the top of the league is Sweden which is well on the way to meet the 5.75 percent target – from next month all large gas station in Sweden must sell at least one kind of biofuel.

Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain and France are also making headway with the biofuel targets while the rest of the EU is slowly catching up.

However, Denmark has set a 0.1 percent target for 2006 and is generally not keen on the idea of an EU-wide target for biofuels in transport as the country is focussing on biomass energy in the industry instead.

At the moment, the EU as a whole is the world's main producer of biodiesel while the bloc’s total production of biofuels in 2005 amounted to 1.4 percent of the union’s energy consumption for transport.

Exporting environmental damage

However, the use of biofuels can come with an environmental price – particularly beyond the EU’s borders.

Environment groups are concerned about the lack of safeguards in Brussels’ proposal to prevent environmental problems beyond the EU as a result of environmentally-friendly policy within its borders.

"[It] could have devastating effects for the immediate environment," said Simon Councell of the UK based Rainforest Foundation.

"Full environment and social costs should be investigated and incorporated into the EU directive," Mr Counsell said.

The effects of the EU’s biofuels policy could be felt as far away as South America and Asia.

Brazil is the world's largest producer of bio ethanol from sugar cane and many Asian countries are planning to establish major palm oil fields - increasingly used as a cheaper substitute for rapeseed oil - for biodiesel production.

In both areas, such fields are often created at the expense of the environment, in effect shifting Europe’s environmental problems to the developing world.

"If you clear a rainforest to plant crops then all the carbon that is within the rainforest is released into the atmosphere," said Catherine Brett from the Worldwide Fund for Nature, (WWF). "Again, a lot of greenhouse gasses."

"Biofuels certainly have a role to play," Ms Brett said. "But to have a meaningful impact, then they have to be produced in a sustainable way."

Both organisations are calling on the EU to incorporate sustainability measures into its biofuels law.

"We are going to make a revision of the biofuels directive this year and one of the ideas that we are proposing is ... a certificate saying that the biofuels have been produced in an environmentally friendly way," EU Commission spokesman Ferran Tarradellas said.

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