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  • ‘Fundamental rethink’ needed on EU biofuels policy

    The United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food has called for an urgent rethink in EU biofuels policy before too much investment is made on the back of unsustainable biofuels targets. His comments come as more evidence emerges that biofuels may be a poor means of tackling climate change.

    The UN rapporteur, Olivier de Schutter, told a press conference in Brussels last month that huge errors had been committed in the initial enthusiasm for an alternative to fossil fuels. Biofuels ‘are not an efficient way of reducing greenhouse gases,’ he said, adding: ‘The more biofuels the EU produces, the more it will be forced to import vegetable oils from the rest of the world.’

    With the EU having committed to biofuels making up 6% of transport fuels by 2020, a lot of land in Africa and Asia has been bought up with the intention of growing biofuels crops. De Schutter says the EU needs to ‘fundamentally re-think’ its policy, as it will be difficult to undo land clearances.

    This idea has been reinforced by a study by the Centre for International Forestry Research (Cifor) which says it may take hundreds of years to reverse the carbon emissions caused by clearing land for growing crops to make biodiesel. The report, ‘Implications of Biodiesel-Induced Land-Use Changes for CO2 Emissions’, says a ‘full life-cycle analysis’ that takes into account the carbon debt of land-use change, should become standard practice to work out the environmental benefits of biofuel production.

    ‘It really matters how you produce biofuels and what land you grow it on as to whether you are going to get climate change benefits,’ said Louis Verchot, a co-author of the report which was published in Ecology and Society magazine.

    The Commission’s trade department has published a key study on indirect land-use change (Iluc) caused by biofuel production that it commissioned from the International Food Policy Research Institute. The report says ‘emissions related to land use changes driven by biofuels policies are a serious concern’ and adds that, in terms of environmental benefits, biofuels may not be the best tool to achieve initial climate targets.’ It also establishes Iluc values for different crops with biodiesel produced from vegetable oil performing notably worse than bioethanol produced from cereals and sugars.

    • The most comprehensive study of large land acquisitions in developing countries to date, published earlier this month by the International Land Coalition (ILC), has found that of 71 million hectares of documented land deals, almost 60% was for biofuels.

    Download the Cifor study:
    T&E factsheet on biofuels: