Warning: all that glisters is not liquid gold

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Series Details 01.02.07
Publication Date 01/02/2007
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Two MEPs look at the pros and cons of biofuels

Rebecca Harms

With spiralling oil prices and a growing awareness of the need to reduce climate-damaging carbon emissions, plant fuels have been euphorically touted as the solution to the various problems posed by our oil dependence. Coupled with a general slump in farm-gate prices for food, it is not hard to see how farmers around the world are convinced that their future lies in embracing plant fuels, such as ethanol and plant diesel.

But the euphoria about plant fuels has served to mask the serious ethical and environmental problems that they directly cause. The oft-used prefix ‘bio’ fools the general public into believing that plant fuels are a wholly positive development for the environment. The reality is far from clear-cut however, with plant-fuel cultivation provoking serious concerns about food security, soil degradation, deforestation and proliferation of genetically modified organisms (GMs).

The jury is also out on how much the production of plant fuels can contribute to solving problems related to climate change. While all green plants take in CO2 and transform it into sugar and oxygen, current farming practices used to grow maize, cereals, sugar cane, palm oil and soy for fuel are fully dependent on mineral oil. Many scientific studies claim that the production of plant fuels uses more energy than the end-product contributes.

It is a cruel irony that the rapid expansion in the cultivation of plant fuels has gone hand-in-hand with tropical deforestation. Palm oil plantations for fuels are quickly expanding into tropical rainforests: in Malaysia, for example, between 1985 and 2000 palm oil plantations were responsible for 87% of deforestation. In Brazil, tropical forests have been razed to cultivate soybeans and sugar cane for producing fuel, both for domestic use and export. Yet, while Brazil will reduce its vehicle emissions, 80% of the country’s greenhouse gases come from deforestation.

The current boom in building plant-fuel processing plants around the world is creating a dangerous competition between the world’s 800 million car owners and the two billion people living below the poverty line. While most car owners have no problem affording their food and petrol needs, the majority of the world’s poor do not even have enough to eat. Around the world livestock and food producers already warn that shortages in oil, feed, milk, eggs and meat are to be expected because of the increasing competition between food and plant-fuel production.

Before agriculture used mineral oil, it used part of the land to feed the horses drawing the plough. But since then, the world population has quadrupled and much of the best crop-land has been lost through soil depletion, desertification and urbanisation. This is seriously exacerbated by current methods of plant-fuel production, which are based on monocultures including the use of high amounts of pesticides, fertilisers, water and GMs.

The Commission should make a comprehensive food security and environmental impact assessment before implementing the proposed directive on plant fuels. This assessment should include the EU’s trading partners, especially developing countries, and look at the global impacts of plant fuel production in tropical regions.

The EU should introduce mandatory certification for domestic and imported plant fuels. Standards should include impacts on biodiversity, water and soils, as well as access to these resources and food for local populations in fuel-exporting countries. Tax incentives, direct aid and multilateral funding should be linked to sustainability criteria and guaranteed through the certification scheme.

While it is important that we bring the plant fuel euphoria back to earth, it is clear that plant fuels will play some role in our energy future. There is enormous, and as yet untapped, potential for both energy saving and fuel production from organic waste. However, the EU should adopt a cautious approach to simply replacing fossil fuels by fuel from plants, as this has no impact on reducing the overall consumption of fuels, which should be a priority, and does not consider food needs.

  • German Green MEP Rebecca Harms is a member of Parliament’s committee on industry, research and energy.

Mairead McGuinness

The EU is over-dependent on imported energy. Ireland, my own country, imports more than 90% of its energy needs. The Irish know more than most the dangers of being over-exposed and over-reliant on imports.

What are we to do? The enormity of the problem might freeze us into inaction, but this is not an option. One of the solutions is to look at the contribution biofuels might make to addressing head-on our reliance on fossil fuels.

From a global point of view, the related issues of energy usage and climate change call for innovative solutions - and renewable energy sources do provide part of the solution.

From a European perspective, careful consideration needs to be given to decisions about our future energy needs, particularly in the light of the unforeseen consequences of these decisions.

The Commission’s recent launch of its energy package sees biofuels playing a central role in improving our environment and reducing our dependence on external energy sources.

Ambitious targets are set for renewable energy generation - a 20% share by 2020, 10% of which should be derived from biofuels. These are to be binding targets and this should encourage member states to make meaningful efforts to achieve them.

Currently, the average for EU25 for biofuel use is just 1% ­- achieving a ten-fold increase in biofuel penetration by 2020 will require more innovative actions at EU and member state level.

Farmers see biofuels as a much-needed lifeline in providing a new land-use possibility and hopefully one that yields a profit.

On the other hand, EU consumers see renewables as holding the promise of cleaner and cheaper energy. But closer examination reveals that the situation may be more complex, in the short-term at least.

We need to be cautious about over-selling the potential contribution of biofuels in meeting Europe’s growing energy needs. Clearly, biofuels should be promoted as part of Europe’s energy mix but we need critically to examine each ingredient in the mix to ensure that its overall contribution to our energy requirements is positive.

In this regard, current evidence relating to biofuels presents a mixed picture: while in principle biofuel is carbon-neutral, when planting, maintenance, harvesting and processing of the crops is taken into account, this proposition is less attractive; secondly, demand for land and crops used for biofuels is putting pressure on alternative resources which might otherwise be used for food production.

This may not be a problem in today’s food-abundant EU, but food production cannot be sidelined.

We certainly do not want to replicate a trend emerging in some US ‘corn belt states’, where there has been an explosion of interest in ethanol distilleries to such an extent that cows are competing with cars for corn.

The Commission has singled out so-called second-generation biofuels - using biomass to produce fuels - as the way forward, rather than simply focusing on the production of biofuels from crops such as corn, sugar beet and rapeseed. But this technology is still in its infancy.

Ultimately it is up to member states to put their money where their mouths are. Developing alternative energy sources will cost money. Encouraging people to invest in biofuels will require tax incentives. Encouraging consumers to use biofuels will also require incentives.

But in doing this we must not overlook the need to use our existing resources more efficiently.

We have a long way to go in making better use of our available energy supplies. Biofuels will contribute to reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, but we also need to be mindful of getting the balance right between food and energy production.

Tipping the balance could leave us short of a more fundamental energy source which we all need - namely food.

  • Irish centre-right MEP Mairead McGuinness is a member of Parliament’s committee on agriculture and rural developement.

Two MEPs look at the pros and cons of biofuels

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