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Europe's Major Reconsideration of Biofuels

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  • Felix Kramer
    We ve said that focusing on biofuels for transportation is putting the cart before the horse: it makes sense to first displace as many miles as possible
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 31, 2008
      We've said that focusing on biofuels for
      transportation is putting the cart before the
      horse: it makes sense to first displace as many
      miles as possible through electricity. Though
      we've seen warnings for several years about "food
      vs. fuel" and about how much greenhouse gases
      various biofuels actually save (not to mention
      the new infrastructure and technology
      developments required), Europe is ahead of the
      U.S. in taking a real look at the problem.

      Here's a NY Times story previewing the emerging
      controversy, links to a British Royal Society
      study on the subject, two stories from the Wall
      Street Journal, and articles from European media
      in the wake of meetings on the subject by the
      European Union. (The UK's Guardian story
      describes divisions among environmentalists on the subject.)

      January 15, 2008
      Europe May Ban Imports of Some Biofuel Crops

      PARIS — In a sign of growing concern about the
      impact of supposedly “green” policies, European
      Union officials will propose a ban on imports of
      certain biofuels, according to a draft law to be unveiled next week.

      If approved by European governments, the law
      would prohibit the importation of fuels derived
      from crops grown on certain kinds of land —
      including forests, wetlands or grasslands — into the 27-nation bloc.

      The draft law would also require that biofuels
      used in Europe deliver “a minimum level of
      greenhouse gas savings.” That level is still under discussion.

      Currently, most of the crops for biofuels used in
      Europe consist of rapeseed (commonly known as
      canola in the United States) grown in parts of
      Europe, according to Matt Drinkwater, a biofuels
      analyst at New Energy Finance in London. Europe
      also imports some palm oil from Southeast Asia,
      soy from Latin America, ethanol from Brazil, and
      produces some ethanol domestically using wheat and sugar beets, he said.

      The ban would primarily affect palm oil and
      possibly the Latin American imports.

      Amid rising prices for gasoline and diesel and
      worries about climate change, countries around
      the world have started using more fuels produced
      from crops or agricultural wastes.

      The amount of ethanol used in the United States
      represents about 5 percent of total gasoline
      consumption, according to Matt Hartwig, a
      spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association in
      Washington. Ethanol produced from sugar cane is
      widely used in Brazil. In Europe and to a lesser
      extent in the United States, vegetable oils have
      been converted into a type of diesel by a simple chemical procedure.

      But a flurry of studies has discredited some of
      the claims made by biofuel producers that the
      fuels help reduce greenhouse gases by reducing
      fossil fuel use and growing
      carbon-dioxide-consuming plants. Growing the
      crops and turning them into fuel can result in considerable environmental harm.

      Not only is native vegetation, including tropical
      rain forests, being chopped down in places to
      plant the crops, but fossil fuels, like diesel
      for tractors, are often used to farm the crops.
      They also demand nitrogen fertilizer made largely
      with natural gas and consume huge amounts of water.

      Already, the draining and deforesting of
      peatlands in Southeast Asia — mainly to make way
      for palm plantations — accounts for up to 8
      percent of global annual carbon dioxide
      emissions, said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.

      In Indonesia, he said, more than 18 million
      hectares of forest, or 44 million acres, have
      already been cleared for palm oil developments.
      Environmental groups say the developments are
      endangering wildlife like the orangutan and the
      Sumatran tiger, and putting pressure on
      indigenous peoples who depend on the forests.

      Western scientists are increasingly pointing out
      the need to distinguish between types of
      biofuels. On Monday, for instance, the Royal
      Society, a national science academy in Britain,
      said requirements to use a certain percentage of
      biofuels were not sufficient. Instead, the
      society said, there should be specific goals for emissions reductions.

      “Indiscriminately increasing the amount of
      biofuels we are using may not automatically lead
      to the best reductions in emissions,” said John
      Pickett, head of biological chemistry at
      Rothamsted Research, a research center in
      Britain, who helped write the report for the
      Royal Society. “The greenhouse gas savings of
      each depends on how crops are grown and converted and how the fuel is used.”

      Last week, scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical
      Research Institute in Washington also warned that
      biofuel production can result in environmental
      destruction, pollution and damage to human health.

      “Different biofuels vary enormously in how
      eco-friendly they are,” said William Laurance, a
      staff scientist at the institute. “We need to be
      smart and promote the right biofuels.”

      Experts say certain types of fuels, particularly
      those made from agricultural wastes, still hold
      potential to improve the environment, but they
      add that governments will have to set and enforce
      standards for how the fuels are produced. With
      its new proposal, Europe appears to be moving
      ahead of the rest of the world in that task.

      The draft law probably would have the greatest
      impact on palm oil growers in countries like
      Malaysia and Indonesia, according to Mr. Drinkwater.

      “Some developments in Southeast Asia will almost
      certainly be blocked by these provisions,” he
      said, adding that the rules would make it much
      harder to plant on recently deforested land or to
      export fuels whose production process cause
      significant amounts of greenhouse gases to be released.

      But farmers growing corn for ethanol could also
      be affected, because the European rules contain
      provisions on preserving grasslands, said Mr. Drinkwater.

      The text, which could change before European
      commissioners meet on Jan. 23 to adopt a final
      version, also emphasizes that areas like rain
      forests and lands with high levels of
      biodiversity should not be converted to growing biofuels.

      The European Union does not want to completely
      abandon biofuels because they could still
      contribute to reducing Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels.

      In part, that is because biofuels — a blanket
      term covering fuels grown from crops to
      manufacture substitutes for diesel and gasoline —
      are seen as Europe’s main weapon in lowering
      emissions from transportation. And transportation
      has the fastest growing levels of greenhouse
      gases among all sectors of Europe’s economy.

      On Monday, in answer to a reporter’s question, an
      organization representing major growers of crops
      for biofuels in Malaysia said the E.U. should be
      cautious before imposing new rules. It said that
      farmers in the region were adopting more
      sustainable practices, and warned that
      restrictions on imports could cause trade tensions.

      “The Malaysian government is very concerned about
      the E.U. scheme for sustainability of biofuels,”
      said Zainuddin Hassan, the manager in Europe for
      the Malaysian Palm Oil Council in Brussels. The
      measures “should not be a trade barrier to the
      palm oil industry and it should comply with the
      W.T.O. rules as well,” he said, referring to the World Trade Organization.

      Verifying that only environmentally sound
      biofuels are being imported into Europe would be
      left to individual countries. But the draft law
      calls for penalties for violating the rules, like
      exclusion from tax breaks, to be enforced across the region.

      The draft law also says that biofuels should be
      tracked from origin to use “so that biofuels
      fulfilling the sustainability criteria can be
      identified and rewarded with a premium in the market.”

      The measures are part of a plan for Europe to
      implement a binding target of making 10 percent
      of the transport fuels consumed by 2020 from
      renewable sources — most of which are expected to be biofuels.

      Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, spokesman for Europe’s
      energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, said that
      European countries that used more than 10 percent
      of biofuels in their transport fuel mix could use
      their progress to help them to reach other
      European environmental targets. Those include a
      goal of a 20-percent share of renewable sources
      in overall energy consumption by 2020.

      Europe already has a suggested target of making
      biofuels 5.75 percent of fuels used for transport
      by 2010. But that target is not going to met,
      according to the draft law. Biofuels were just 1
      percent of transport fuel in 2005 and, if present
      trends continue, would account for 4.2 percent by 2010.

      Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges
      14 Jan 2008

      The Society convened a working group of leading
      experts to consider the science and technology
      prospects of delivering efficient biofuels for
      transport in the broader context of the
      environmental protection and sustainability.

      The working group concluded that biofuels have a
      potentially useful role in tackling the issues of
      climate change and energy supply. However,
      important opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas
      emissions from biofuels, and to ensure wider
      environmental and social benefits, may be missed
      with existing policy frameworks and targets.
      Unless biofuel development is supported by
      appropriate policies and economic instruments
      then there is a risk that we may become locked
      into inefficient biofuel supply chains that
      potentially create harmful environmental and
      social impacts. New technologies need to be
      accelerated that can help address these issues,
      aided by policies that provide direct incentives
      to invest in the most efficient biofuels.

      The report makes a series of recommendations
      about policies and research needs in order to
      help develop sustainable biofuels for transport
      LINK TO REPORT: Sustainable biofuels: prospects
      and challenges (Adobe PDF File, 788kb)

      EU Is Planning Measures
      To Protect Biofuels Industry
      By JOHN W. MILLER in Brussels and TOM WRIGHT in Jakarta, Indonesia
      Write to John W. Miller at
      john.miller@... and Tom Wright at tom.wright@...
      January 23, 2008; Page A11

      The European Union will move today to protect its
      ailing transport-biofuels industry from foreign
      imports with measures that would force companies
      to show their fuels are helping the environment
      more than they are hurting it, according to
      documents seen by The Wall Street Journal.

      The biggest losers are expected to be companies
      in Southeast Asia that make biofuels out of oil
      palms they have planted after cutting down
      forests. Trees soak up carbon dioxide; felling
      them blunts the benefit of cleaner-burning fuels made from oil palms.

      Separately, the EU is preparing punitive tariffs
      on biofuel imports from the U.S. if Washington
      doesn't remove a tax credit for some American
      biofuels exporters, according to EU officials.

      The EU today also will set specific targets for
      renewable-energy use and will announce a plan to
      charge companies for permits to pollute. The
      European Parliament and national governments still need to endorse the rules.

      The new EU law on transport fuels would force
      so-called green-energy companies to prove that
      the production and use of their fuels cut carbon
      emissions by at least 35% compared with
      production and use of traditional fossil fuels,
      say EU officials. The clear-cutting of forests
      and the use of energy guzzlers have raised fears
      that biofuels might do more overall harm than good.

      The moves would benefit makers of the EU's
      biggest biofuels crop, rapeseed oil. Studies show
      that the production and use of rapeseed-oil fuel
      cuts emissions by about 37% compared with the
      production and use of fossil fuels. By
      comparison, corn ethanol, at 22%, doesn't make
      the cut. That would prohibit any future U.S.
      ethanol exports to the EU. Currently, U.S. ethanol isn't exported to Europe.

      Among the companies in Indonesia that make fuel
      out of oil palms, Singapore-based Wilmar
      International Ltd., which runs a
      biodiesel-refining plant on the island of
      Sumatra, expects its exports to Europe to be hit,
      said spokesman Jeremy Goon. The EU draft law
      "creates a nontariff barrier" to trade, he said.

      Asian companies are expected to be exempted if
      their plantations were established before 2003.
      Mission Biofuels Ltd., which runs a biodiesel
      refinery in Malaysia and is listed in Australia,
      said the ruling is unlikely to affect its exports
      to the EU. Mission buys all its crude palm oil
      from plantations in Malaysia that were set up
      before 2003, said Swaminathan Mahalingam, the company's managing director.

      In 2003, the EU made a bet on biodiesel,
      stimulating production with tax breaks for oil
      companies that buy biofuels to blend with regular
      fuel. EU governments have been slow to force
      their consumers to use biodiesel, however. In
      fact, there is a 5% limit on how much biodiesel
      can be mixed with regular diesel, and biodiesel
      remains almost twice as expensive as regular diesel.

      Europe's Biodiesel Drive Sputters
      Industry's Woes Endanger EU Goal For Using Fossil-Fuel Alternatives
      December 27, 2007; Page A4

      BORKEN, Germany -- The European Union's dream of
      using vegetable-based diesel fuel in cars to cut
      oil imports and the pollution that causes global warming is turning sour.

      The bloc made a big bet on biodiesel fuels in
      2003, agreeing that its governments would phase
      in tax breaks and rules to encourage their production and use.

      The bet seemed to make sense. Most Europeans
      drive diesel cars, making ethanol -- the U.S.
      clean fuel of choice for gasoline-powered cars --
      impractical. Biodiesel can be mixed with regular
      diesel fuel and, when blended, doesn't need any
      special pumps or engine-design changes.

      Mirroring the U.S. experience with ethanol,
      European companies rushed to make biodiesel out
      of a range of things, including rapeseed crops
      and used McDonald's frying oil. Low raw-material
      costs and generous tax breaks meant margins were
      high. By last year, Europe's annual capacity to
      make the fuel had climbed to 10 million metric
      tons from two million tons in 2003.

      As with ethanol in the U.S., though, Europe now
      has a glut of biodiesel. The world consumed only
      nine million tons of biodiesel last year.
      Europe's producers found buyers for just five
      million tons. The industry is in trouble, under
      pressure from soaring costs, disappearing tax
      breaks, less-costly imports and waning public support.

      The trend is at odds with conventional wisdom
      that rising oil prices make green energy more
      attractive. It also means the EU risks missing
      the goal it set in 2003 of replacing 10% of
      transportation fuel with nonfossil fuels by 2020.

      The 27-nation bloc, which claims to lead the
      world in cutting the carbon-dioxide emissions
      believed to cause global warming, uses nonfossil
      fuels for less than 2% of transportation fuel consumed.

      Since January, prices for the crops that make
      most biodiesel have doubled, driving the cost of
      a ton of biodiesel up 50%, to around $1,440 a
      ton, or about $4.80 a gallon. Prices for regular
      crude-oil-based diesel have risen sharply, too,
      but only to $840 a ton, or $2.80 a gallon.
      Biodiesel has become more expensive for oil
      companies to buy than fossil fuel, and they are cutting back.

      Green lobbies are also turning against biodiesel.
      They now say that growing crops for biodiesel
      puts too much pressure on land and food prices.
      In Europe, 80% of biodiesel is made from
      rapeseed, a distinctive, yellow-flowered crop.
      Environmental groups also oppose imported
      palm-oil-based biodiesel from countries such as
      Malaysia and Indonesia, saying the rush to grow
      more oil palm trees is causing deforestation.

      The combination of problems has hit producers
      hard. Petrotec AG, based here in Borken, Germany,
      makes biodiesel out of used cooking oil from
      McDonald's, Burger King and other restaurants.
      After going public last year, its market
      capitalization quickly climbed to €200 million
      ($288 million). But when the German government
      canceled a biodiesel tax credit in August 2006,
      Petrotec's share price halved, and the company shed workers.

      "How are we meant to invent and develop new
      technology if we can't make money?" asks Petrotec
      Chief Executive Roger Boeing, who started the
      firm in 1998. He helped pioneer a technology for
      converting recycled oil into biodiesel, but it
      still isn't efficient enough to make biodiesel
      less expensive than normal diesel.

      A prominent British company, Biofuels Corp.,
      avoided a bankruptcy situation this year after
      Barclays Bank agreed to swap some of its debt
      outstanding for 94% of the equity in the company.
      The company blamed high commodity prices and
      biodiesel imports from the U.S. for its woes.

      U.S. biodiesel producers enjoy a big tax credit
      from the federal government. This month, Congress
      voted to extend the tax credit until the end of
      2010. EU producers recently asked the EU to
      impose punitive tariffs on biodiesel imports from
      the U.S., citing the subsidies as unfair
      competition. U.S. producers dispute the claim.

      "We're still working on a big technological
      breakthrough to bring costs down," says Bruno
      Reyntjens, a manager at Proviron, a Belgian
      company that makes biodiesel out of rapeseed and soybeans.

      Scientists say it is likely to be at least 2010
      before any breakthrough is made on costs, or on
      producing a biodiesel than can run in regular
      diesel engines effectively at a much higher blend
      than the current standard of 5% per gallon of diesel sold at the pump.

      Europe's governments are finding it difficult to
      adjust policy to a new and volatile market. In
      2006, when commodity prices were low and margins
      were fat, Germany decided to trim the tax breaks
      it offers to biodiesel producers. Earlier this
      year, France raised taxes on biodiesel. Now that
      producers are in trouble, governments aren't giving the tax breaks back.

      "It's public finances versus agriculture, and
      governments need money," says Kevin McGeeney,
      chief executive of Switzerland-based Starsupply
      Renewables SA, a biofuels broker. Ten EU
      countries, including the United Kingdom, have
      delayed measures to force oil companies to blend
      biodiesel with their regular fuel.

      The Paris-based International Energy Agency has
      urged EU governments to cut back further on
      incentives to develop biofuels, saying they are too expensive.

      Peter Mandelson, the EU's top trade negotiator,
      says the problem isn't the use of biodiesel, but
      producing it in crowded, high-cost Europe.
      "Europe should be open to accepting that we will
      import a large part of our biofuel resources,"
      Mr. Mandelson said in a speech this summer.

      U.S. ethanol producers are facing some similar
      problems. Buoyed by $7 billion a year in
      subsidies and a tariff on foreign imports, U.S.
      farmers planted a quarter more corn this year,
      most of it going toward making ethanol. But
      supply of ethanol is outstripping demand, mainly
      because of the difficulty and cost of
      transporting ethanol, which needs special
      pipelines. Some U.S. ethanol producers are idling
      production and a debate has begun over whether
      the pressure that ethanol production puts on
      agricultural land is worth the modest cuts in
      carbon-dioxide emissions it yields.

      To bio or not to bio - are 'green' fuels really good for the earth?
      The EU says we need them, some experts say they
      damage the planet. Who is right?
      David Adam, environment correspondent
      The Guardian, Saturday January 26 2008

      From the top of the Greenergy refinery in
      Immingham you can see across the Humber estuary
      to Hull. A hum of equipment fills the air, along with a curious smell. Popcorn.

      Greenergy processes vegetable oil. It takes the
      gloopy juice squeezed from inside rape seeds
      harvested on surrounding Lincolnshire fields,
      strips out the waste and chemically tweaks the
      leftovers to make it easier to burn. Greenergy
      pipes almost 100,000 tonnes a year of its veggie
      option to ConocoPhillips and Texaco, just across
      the road, which mix it with their diesel fuel.

      Until recently, the operation was viewed as a
      good thing. Because the oilseed rape plants
      absorb carbon dioxide, the company says the
      carbon emissions of the mixed fuel are lower,
      which helps the fight against global warming. And
      because oil companies that supply the blend pay
      less tax, everybody wins. Greenergy is expanding
      and similar facilities are going up elsewhere.

      But now a chill wind is blowing through this
      emerging industry. Fuels from vegetable oil,
      sugar, corn and a number of other crops and
      plants, collectively known as biofuels, are
      taking flak. There are doubts about their carbon
      savings, and concern over their impact on food
      supplies, prices and the land needed to grow
      them. This week, a parliamentary committee called
      for a moratorium on efforts to increase their
      use. Yet on Wednesday, the EU confirmed it will
      force oil companies to mix biofuel into petrol
      and diesel, while separate UK action on climate
      change will make all suppliers use biofuels by April.

      It is a confusing situation, which provoked New
      Scientist to call on the UN's Intergovernmental
      Panel on Climate Change to "determine whether
      biofuels are good or bad". The issue splits even
      the green campaigners: Friends of the Earth said
      this week's European move was a disaster; WWF welcomed it.


      Jeremy Tomkinson, head of the National Non-Food
      Crops Centre in York, which promotes biofuels,
      says the New Scientist question misses the point.
      "We need people to understand not all biofuels
      are the same," he says. "You can't say whether
      all biofuels are good or bad. The challenge is to
      use more of the good ones and less of the others."

      The Greenergy refinery illustrates the point. At
      the moment, the plant is running on British rape
      seed oil, but later in the year it will include
      oils from US soya beans. In the summer, it could
      blend palm oil from the tropics into the mix.
      Sometimes it uses waste cooking oil.

      Like others in the oil industry, biofuel
      companies source their feedstocks from suppliers
      across the world, depending on price and
      availability. Greenergy has a similar biofuel
      facility in Rotterdam, using rape from France and Germany.

      The company is also involved in ethanol, which it
      mixes into petrol. Most ethanol from plants comes
      from fermented sugar cane in Brazil, but batches
      can also come from sugar beet, wheat and corn,
      grown in different ways across different
      countries. Andrew Owens, managing director of
      Greenergy, says it takes the environmental impact
      into account. The company has blacklisted some
      suppliers, and will not buy bioethanol from the
      US, because of the amounts of nitrogen fertiliser required to grow the crops.

      Its website says the carbon savings of bioethanol
      produced in the northern hemisphere, such as from
      another British biofuel facility owned by British
      Sugar in Norfolk, are "questionable". Greenergy
      has lined up a sugar cane-based bioethanol
      supplier in Africa, to combat rising demand for
      the Brazilian version, which is generally agreed
      to be the greenest biofuel around.

      On biodiesel, it points out that tropical fuels
      such as palm oil produce less carbon-intensive
      fuels, because they require less greenhouse
      gas-fuelled effort to grow, and claims associated
      problems such as deforestation to start
      plantations are "managerial rather than intrinsic".

      Owens says it tries to buy from companies which
      have joined the Round Table on Sustainable Palm
      Oil, an industry body that is working to green
      the supply chain, and inspect non-members. "I can
      trace our supplies through to specific farmers
      and plantations. I believe we're driving up standards across the board."

      Owens argues that the food industry, which still
      takes the vast majority of palm oil, has caused
      more damage in countries such as Indonesia but
      escaped the level of criticism aimed at green fuels.


      Tomkinson says the new mood against biofuels
      could even make the situation worse. European
      investors have lost their nerve, he says, and are
      planning to build fewer refineries. To meet
      increased demand for biodiesel, oil companies
      would have to look elsewhere. Under the UK and
      European regulations, Britain alone will need
      about 2m tonnes of biofuel by 2010. Current
      production is about 300,000 tonnes. (Though UK
      use of palm oil as biofuel is limited by our
      colder climate, which makes it waxy and unsuitable for engines).

      It is this expansion of biofuel use that most
      worries opponents and critics. Even if companies
      such as Greenergy manage to make their products
      sustainable and climate-friendly - and
      campaigners point out that some palm oil
      companies registered with the Round Table have
      still been linked with illegal logging - how
      could such checks be maintained on a huge scale?

      Besides deforestation, campaigners say wider
      biofuel cultivation could cause water shortages
      and increase pollution, and that converting land
      could release more carbon emissions than the
      fuels save. Scientists have questioned whether
      there is enough suitable land to grow sufficient crops.

      There are also uncertainties over the life cycle
      analyses used to work out the overall carbon
      saving of different biofuels. Paul Crutzen, the
      Nobel prize-winning physicist, recently suggested
      that more nitrogen compounds, potent greenhouse
      gases, could escape into the atmosphere from
      fertiliser than officially counted. Some say, per
      tonne of carbon saved, biofuels are simply not cost-effective.

      The parliamentary environmental audit committee
      concluded on Monday that the possible risks
      outweighed the benefits and that UK and European
      targets on biofuel use should be scrapped until
      their environmental advantages can be guaranteed.
      Tim Yeo, chair of the committee, said: "The
      government must ensure its biofuels policy
      balances greenhouse gas emission cuts with wider environmental benefits."

      Andris Piebalgs, the EU energy commissioner,
      strongly disagreed and said the only realistic
      alternative was oil, which he described as "a
      shrinking source of energy with serious
      environmental concerns in regions where it is
      produced, that generates large amounts of carbon
      dioxide not only when it is burned, but also when
      it is extracted, transported and refined".

      The UK government, this week handed down a stiff
      EU target to produce 15% of all its energy from
      renewable sources by 2020, was also in no mood to
      abandon its biofuel targets, which it reckons can
      save a million tons of carbon pollution by 2010.

      Both the UK and EU say they will apply strict
      sustainability criteria to the new fuels, and
      demand audited carbon savings. Britain has
      created the Renewable Fuels Agency and plans to
      publish the results for each supplier. By 2010,
      it says the process will be able to link tax
      benefits received by the oil giants to how green their biofuels are.

      The Royal Society, in a study that was more
      supportive of biofuels than was reported,
      recently gave cautious backing to the
      sustainability criteria, though it pointed out
      they were riddled with uncertainties. Friends of
      the Earth said the government had given people no
      easy way to distinguish good biofuels from bad,
      and that indirect effects, such as people being
      displaced from land seized to grow crops, were not assessed.

      Andrew Owens of Greenergy says: "We are trying to
      introduce unprecedented standards. We're the good guys here."

      Europe January 24, 2008 (Business Week from Der Spiegel)
      Criticism Mounts Against Biofuels
      The EU has announced plans to increase the use of
      gas and diesel produced from plants, but many say
      they are even more harmful than conventional fossil fuels
      by Charles Hawley

      The images are enough to soothe one's soul.
      Golden fields of grain stretching as far as the
      eye can see; bright yellow rapeseed flower
      blooming in the European countryside; drivers
      happily cruising down the autobahn, smiling in
      the knowledge that the biodiesel their car is
      burning does no harm to the environment.

      This used to be a dense forest in Indonesia. But
      the trees have made way for a palm oil plantation to produce biofuels.

      But such a bucolic view of biofuels -- gas and
      diesel made from plants -- may soon become a
      thing of the past. The European Union on
      Wednesday unveiled a far-reaching plan aimed at
      cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent
      relative to 1990 and dramatically upping the
      share of renewable energies in the 27-member
      bloc's energy mix. The scheme also calls for 10
      percent of fuel used in transportation to be made
      up of biofuels. That last element, though, is
      becoming increasingly controversial -- and
      environmental groups, this week, are leading an
      aggressive charge to put a stop to biofuels.

      'No Way to Make Them Viable'

      "The biofuels route is a dead end," Dr. Andrew
      Boswell, a Green Party councillor in England and
      author of a recent study on the harmful effects
      of biofuels, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "They are going
      to create great damage to the environment and
      will also produce dramatic social problems in
      (tropical countries where many crops for biofuels
      are grown). There basically isn't any way to make them viable."

      The evidence against biofuels marshalled by
      Boswell and other environmentalists appears quite
      damning. Advertised as a fuel that only emits the
      amount of carbon dioxide that the plants absorb
      while growing -- making it carbon neutral -- it
      actually has resulted in a profitable industrial
      sector attractive to countries around the world.
      Vast swaths of forest have been felled and burned
      in Argentina and elsewhere for soya plantations.
      Carbon-rich peat bogs are being drained and rain
      forests destroyed in Indonesia to make way for extensive palm oil farming.

      Because the forests are often torched and the
      peat rapidly oxidizes, the result is huge amounts
      of CO2 being released into the atmosphere.
      Furthermore, healthy peat bogs and forests absorb
      CO2 -- scientists refer to them as "carbon sinks"
      -- making their disappearance doubly harmful.

      Indeed, the Stern Review on the Economics of
      Climate Change, released in October 2006,
      estimates that deforestation and other comparable
      land-use changes account for 18 percent of all
      greenhouse gas emissions around the world.
      Biofuels, say activists, accelerate that process.

      A Gold Rush

      "We are causing a climate catastrophe by
      promoting agro-fuels," Greenpeace agricultural
      specialist Alexander Hissting told SPIEGEL
      ONLINE, using his group's preferred term for
      biofuels. "We are creating a huge industry in
      many parts of the world. In Indonesia, something
      akin to a gold rush has broken out."

      The European Union seems to have taken note of
      the gathering biofuels storm. The plan has noted
      that the 10-percent goal is dependent on whether
      "production is sustainable," as an EU PowerPoint
      presentation delivered to reporters on Tuesday
      noted. The EU also wants to make it illegal to
      use biofuels made from crops grown in nature
      reserves or in recently clear-cut forest lands.
      Crops grown in places valuable as carbon sinks are also to be avoided.

      But critics doubt whether such clauses, which
      call for acceptable fields to be certified, is
      enforceable. "At the moment, such certification
      systems are very incomplete and it is very
      unlikely that they will ever work," says Boswell.
      "The biofuel supply chain is incredibly complicated."

      Even EU scientists doubt whether the supposed
      benefits of biofuels will ever outweigh the
      costs. A recent report in the Financial Times
      cited an unpublished study by the Joint Research
      Center, a stable of European Commission
      scientists, as saying that the "uncertainty is
      too great to say whether the EU 10 percent
      biofuel target will save greenhouse gas or not."
      It noted that subsidies in place to promote
      biofuels would cost European taxpayers between
      ?33 billion and ?65 billion by 2020.

      Environmentalists say that emissions aren't the
      only serious problem created by the biofuel boom.
      Even crops grown in northern countries, like corn
      in the United States or rapeseed in Germany and
      the rest of Europe, harbor major dangers to the
      climate. Both maize and rapeseed are voracious
      consumers of nitrogen, leading farmers to use
      large quantities of nitrous oxide fertilizers.
      But when nitrous oxide is released into the
      atmosphere, it reflects 300 times as much heat as
      carbon dioxide does. Paul J. Crutzen, who won the
      1995 Nobel prize for chemistry, estimates that
      biodiesel produced from rapeseed can result in up
      to 70 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than
      fossil fuels. Corn, the preferred biofuels crop
      in the US, results in 50 percent more emissions, Crutzen estimates.

      'A Total Disaster'

      Another issue receiving increasing attention
      recently is that of rising food prices as
      foodstuffs are turned into fuel. Price increases
      for soybeans and corn hit developing countries
      particularly hard. Indeed, there have already
      been food price riots in Mexico, Morocco, Senegal
      and other developing countries. While the price
      increases cannot be pinned entirely on biofuels,
      it has certainly played a role. In October, the
      United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the Right
      to Food Jean Ziegler called for a five-year
      moratorium on biofuels to combat rising prices.
      Using arable land for biofuels, he said, "is a
      total disaster for those who are starving."

      Slowly, it appears that some governments are
      beginning to listen to the chorus of criticisms.
      Last autumn, the Canadian province of Quebec
      announced that it would cease building plants to
      produce the biofuel ethanol. And on Monday, the
      UK's House of Commons Environmental Audit
      Committee called for a stop in the increase of
      biofuel use. "Biofuels can reduce greenhouse gas
      emissions from road transport. But at present,
      most biofuels have a detrimental impact on the
      environment overall," committee chairman Tim Yeo said, according to Reuters.

      The European Union has reacted with anger to the
      UK report. Andris Piebalgs, European commissioner
      for energy, told the Guardian that "the
      Commission strongly disagrees with the conclusion
      of the British House of Commons report."

      The report, though, is music to the ears of
      environmentalists like Boswell. "We have been
      highlighting these problems for a number of
      years," he says. "Now it is time for the UK
      government to act on the committee report."

      -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
      Felix Kramer fkramer@...
      Founder California Cars Initiative
      -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
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