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
By JAMES KANTER
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 Europes 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 Europes main weapon in lowering
emissions from transportation. And transportation
has the fastest growing levels of greenhouse
gases among all sectors of Europes economy.
On Monday, in answer to a reporters 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 Europes
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
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
By JOHN W. MILLER
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."
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Felix Kramer fkramer@...
Founder California Cars Initiative
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