WEEKEND FEATURE: EU Persists With Biofuels

By David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Belgium, January 25, 2008 – The European Union has decided to maintain a target for increasing the use of biofuels despite mounting concerns that its strategy could worsen global hunger.

In a far-reaching action plan for combating climate change published Jan. 23, the European Commission, the EU executive, announced that it was sticking to a previously agreed goal that biofuels should provide 10 percent of the energy needed to power cars and other modes of transport by 2020.

This was despite a barrage of recent criticism of this goal, including by some figures within the Commission. Louis Michel, the European commissioner for development aid, said earlier this month that there is a genuine risk that traditional agriculture in poor countries will be damaged if arable land is used for growing crops destined to meet energy needs in wealthier parts of the world.

Also, a study by scientists working for the Commission has concluded that “the uncertainty is too great to say whether the EU 10 percent biofuel target will save greenhouse gases or not.”

Andris Piebalgs, Europe’s energy commissioner, said that biofuels used in the EU will have to fulfil criteria designed to prove their ecological and social sustainability. They must not be derived from crops grown on land that hosts a wide range of flora and fauna, he said, and must not be grown in forests or on other land situated on a large quantity of carbon.

This follows reports that the production of biofuels on wetlands or peatlands involves high release of carbon dioxide, the main gas driving climate change.

Piebalgs also said he could “guarantee” that the price of food would not rise as a result of EU support for biofuels. He promised “decisive” action if any evidence emerges that commodities become more expensive due to the Union’s policies.

But these assurances did not allay fears expressed by anti-poverty and green activists.

Oxfam spokesman Alexander Woollcombe said that biofuels may help boost the income of poor farmers in certain cases but he insisted that it is necessary their production does not have adverse consequences for food production.

Last week Indonesia witnessed street protests because soya bean prices climbed to record levels as a result of U.S. farmers realising that biofuels can be more lucrative than soya.

“The EU has set a very ambitious target and has no idea how to meet it,” Woollcombe told IPS. “If it can’t reach this target in a sustainable way, it should go back to the drawing board.”

A South American campaigner complained that the Commission is not taking into account how peasants have been displaced from their land in some poor countries to make way for plantations of palm oil, the main biofuel used in Europe.

“The sustainability criteria proposed by the European Commission exclude vital factors such as large-scale water extraction, soil erosion, land conflicts, human rights and the labour conditions of workers,” said Stella Semino from Grupo de Reflexión Rural in Argentina. “Moreover, they can’t deal with macro-level impacts such as displacement and increased food prices.”

Frauke Theis from Greenpeace described the 10 percent target as a “mistake”, arguing that plant matter can be “more efficiently used for electricity and heat production, rather than to fuel high-consumption cars.”

The main innovation in the Commission’s package is that it is recommending legally binding goals for each of the EU’s 27 countries to increase the amount of electricity derived from clean renewable sources such as wind and the sun. These are designed to ensure a 20 percent reduction in the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

The Commission has also recommended a widening in scope of the three-year-old Emissions Trading Scheme, which is designed to place a cap on the amount of carbon dioxide that major energy users release.

Whereas some major electricity companies had benefited from free allowances under the ETS, all emission permits for the power sector are to be sold by auction from 2013 under the new plan. Exceptions to auctioning may be made, however, for economic activities deemed vulnerable on the international markets because other countries have not taken comparable measures against climate change.

José Manuel Barroso, the Commission’s president, predicted that implementing the new plan will cost the equivalent of 0.5 percent of the EU’s gross domestic product, or about 3 euros (4 dollars) per week for each of the Union’s citizens between now and 2020. The cost of not taking action could be ten times greater, he added.

One major benefit of increasing the use of renewable energy is that it will reduce the EU’s reliance on oil and gas imported from oppressive regimes or regions experiencing political turmoil, he added.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) generally reacted positively to the new package.

Graham Watson, leader of the Parliament’s Liberal grouping, contended that unveiling the package is the “most important act” Barroso has taken since becoming the Commission’s president in 2004. (IPS)