Biofuels: handle with care

November 11, 2009

An analysis of EU biofuel policy with recommendations for action.

For many policymakers biofuels must have seemed like a dream-come-true. The arguments put forward by supporters were plentiful and powerful. Carbon Dioxide emissions (CO2) could be cut because the biofuel crops absorb CO2 while they grow and energy security could be guaranteed because biofuels can be grown at home or imported from stable regions rather than oil states. The car industry also liked them because they took political focus away from vehicle fuel efficiency as a route to cutting CO2 emissions. Cars require only minor modifications to become green-looking‘flexfuel’models. Farmerslikedthembecause it created another market for their products and even oil companies came to like them, because it enabled them to look more “green”.

The EU and other regions hurried to put in place volume targets and financial incentives to force the market to adopt biofuels. However, in the rush, the full impacts of their production were not well understood. And, by focusing

on a single nascent technology, rather than on the goal – carbon emissions reductions – the dream soon turned to a nightmare. It has now become clear that there is no simple answer to the question of whether biofuels are truly a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. The evidence, much of it published in the last three years, suggests that in the vast majority of existing cases, they are not. A change to current policy is needed.

This report follows the adoption, at the end of 2008, of the European Union’s mandatory 10% renewable energy target for transport, to be reached by 2020. It attempts to assess the environmental implications of that policy. Its key finding is that if the target is, as is widely accepted, almost completely to be met through the use of biofuels, it is highly unlikely to be met sustainably. In short, there is a very substantial risk that current policy will cause more harm than good.

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