EU biofuels policy contributes to climate change

Written by Robbie Blake on 20 February 2015 in Opinion
Opinion

The best way of reducing transport emissions is by reducing fuel demand in cars, not increasing biofuel use, argues Robbie Blake.

Next week, MEPs in the European parliament's ENVI committee will decide whether or not it’s sustainable to put millions of tons of food crops into the tanks of our cars.

Those who have followed this issue since 2009’s renewable energy directive, which introduced a target for 10 per cent renewable energy in transport, know it has become one of the most fraught in Brussels. Unless changes are made, the target is set to be met almost entirely through the use of biofuels made from food crops like maize, rapeseed, soy and palm oil.

For environmental organisations who have campaigned for years to implement strong climate change legislation, it has caused no small discomfort to see measures intended to protect the environment in fact causing disruption to food markets and increasing the global competition for land - as we warned they would.

At Friends of the Earth, we first heard that policies to incentivise biofuels might be causing serious problems a decade ago.

"At Friends of the Earth, we first heard that policies to incentivise biofuels might be causing serious problems a decade ago"

Our partners in Indonesia, Paraguay, Brazil and elsewhere began reporting a pattern of massive new plantation developments for sugar cane, oil palm and soy, under the guise of a new source of 'green' fuel - and these were threatening local communities and forests.

200 civil society organisations have recently written to MEPs to echo the very same story.

Since then, extensive scientific research has investigated the same problem from the perspective of life-cycle analysis. Put into numbers, the scientific evidence is clear that large-scale agriculture to meet the additional demand for crop-based biofuels can cause land use changes leading to significant additional greenhouse gas emissions - so called indirect land use change emissions.

This means that, on balance; diverting crops to fuel our transport often does more to contribute to climate change than to combat it.

"The scientific evidence is clear that large-scale agriculture to meet the additional demand for crop-based biofuels can cause land use changes leading to significant additional greenhouse gas emissions"

This is not surprising. 98 per cent of the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia will be gone within 15 years under current logging rates, according to the UN, and encroaching palm oil plantations are the primary cause.

For Europe to contribute to that pressure by generating additional demand for vegetable oil for Europe’s diesel tanks only exacerbates that disaster.

There is some uncertainty in the calculation of the life-cycle impacts of biofuels, including these crucial indirect land use changes.

However, the EU’s joint research centre reckons that the calculations of indirect land use changes have the same uncertainty as the estimates of the direct greenhouse gas emissions released from planting, harvesting and processing biofuel crops.  

And a policy backed by subsidies of €6bn that aims to reduce greenhouse gases cannot hope to achieve its objective unless this comprehensive picture is included. If there are concerns over scientific certainty, the response is to continuously refine indirect land use change factors as the science is evolving; it is not an argument for doing nothing to address this serious issue. 

The effective path to reducing transport emissions is by reducing fuel demand in cars, making trains and public transport better and cheaper and speeding up the electrification of our transport system, not increasing biofuel use.

Pressure on food markets and on natural resources, scientific warnings of a counter-productive climate impact and the damage to the livelihoods of communities forced off their land to make way for expanding plantations make it clear. The prudent first step is to limit the amount of food crops that can be used to fuel our cars.

About the author

Robbie Blake is a biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe

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