Deforestation, billions of euros wasted, and soaring food and fuel prices; the charge sheet against biofuels is damning. Introduced to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, the burning of food crops for fuel has been an unmitigated disaster.
11 years ago, the European Union (EU) introduced a biofuels mandate as part of its green fuels law. The proposition at the time was attractive: farmers would be supported to produce green fuel. This would cut Europe’s emissions and make it more energy secure. It is now abundantly clear burning food crops in cars isn’t green. Biofuels also failed to make Europe energy independent. Virtually all of the growth in biodiesel since 2009 came from imported feedstocks such as palm oil.
Palm oil will be phased out of the EU’s biofuel mix. Soy is set to face the same fate if the EU Parliament gets its way. But what about rapeseed, sunflower, wheat or corn? Isn’t it time that we simply stopped burning basic food commodities?
It is the right moment to ask this question. Compared to pre-pandemic levels and worsened by the war of Russia against Ukraine, two critical suppliers of food to the global market, the number of people facing acute food insecurity rose by over 200 million to now 345 million. Hunger and starvation bring unspeakable misery and desperation. The last time millions went hungry on Europe’s borders, it helped trigger the Arab Spring, and subsequent wars and a refugee crisis.
All the while, Europe continues the wanton burning of food crops in its cars, vans and trucks, adding to the global price hike. Europe burns 10,000 tonnes of wheat every day in cars. Of the soy oil consumed in the European Union, a third is used by cars and trucks. For rapeseed oil and palm it is more than half.
This was always dumb. Now it has become indefensible.
Nor is this the work of the invisible hand or some evil corporation. It is the result of Europe’s own climate policy and its green fuel law specifically.
The EU’s biofuel mandate benefits a clique of biofuels producers, increasingly dominated by big oil corporations, like Total or ENI, at the cost of everyone else.
Some countries like Germany are planning to slash biofuel usage from crops. Others like France (and across the Atlantic the US) are promoting even greater biofuel usage. Between January and May nearly 50.000 french citizens installed a converter (often subsidised) so they can start burning E85 ethanol which sells for half the price of petrol thanks to state support.
The time has come for the EU to abolish its food biofuel mandate and end all other forms of support to food biofuels. Countries moving faster to cut their biofuels usage should be supported, not penalised. Right now biofuels are considered as zero emission fuels which makes them an attractive tool to hit national (effort sharing) climate targets. The EU should provide flexibility to countries such as Germany that want to hit their climate goals whilst reducing food biofuels.
What about farmers? They have hardly benefited from the EU green fuel law as almost all of the growth in biofuels came from imports. But as food crops are phased out farmers must be supported. There are ample ways in which we could put the €17bn a year we now spend on biofuels to better use. For example, governments could support farmers to produce genuinely sustainable energy such as wind or solar power.
In September, Europe’s elected parliamentarians have a chance to put things right. For years the damage from biofuels was thought to have been confined to the rainforests of far-flung places like Indonesia and Brazil. But with vegetable oil shelves empty and the price of pasta soaring, European consumers are starting to see the threat of rising food prices and the sheer madness of burning food crops in cars.