Flawed answer to climate change crisis: EU leaders risk dead end for energy and environment policies

Environmental groups BirdLife International, the European Environmental Bureau and Transport & Environment, are appealing to the Spring Council meeting of EU heads of government to reject a proposed mandatory biofuel target. The three NGOs believe that they should instead adopt the recently proposed ‘lifecycle greenhouse gas emission reduction’ targets for transport fuel, which would differentiate between biofuels according to their environmental performance and would only support the best performing ones.

Despite repeated and consistent warnings about the potential a mandatory biofuels target has to harm the environment, in January the European Commission proposed a 10% mandatory target for biofuels as part of its energy package. This means that one-tenth of fuel used in the EU must be produced from plant material. The package recently received support from the Energy and Environment Councils.

To illustrate the threat of unconditional public support for biofuels, the NGOs cite the example of biofuels-driven projects which risk creating vast plantations by clearing tracts of tropical rainforest. Recent controversies have surrounded this kind of project in Indonesia and elsewhere.

“We call for a strong response from the European Council to the challenge of fighting climate change”, said John Hontelez of EEB. “The EU should set itself a binding target of 30% greenhouse gas reductions by 2020, compared with 1990. And it should also set ambitious binding targets for the introduction of renewables. But we don’t want this to include a target for biofuels that will result in major environmental and social problems. We should focus much more on energy efficiency and truly sustainable renewables, such as wind and solar power. The transport sector in particular should invest in energy efficiency and cleaner mobility alternatives.”

“Europe's approach to alternative fuel sources like biofuels has been to promote them regardless of whether or not they’re good for the environment”, said Jos Dings of T&E. “EU leaders should scrap the biofuel target and instead go for the lifecycle greenhouse gas approach the Commission has proposed in its January review of the Fuel Quality Directive. If it’s designed right, this policy would ensure that only the cleanest biofuels are promoted and the fossil fuel production process also cleans up its act. This approach requires fuel suppliers actually to improve their climate performance, rather than just blending in a product with uncertain environmental consequences.”

Ariel Brunner of BirdLife International added: “As an absolute minimum, we urge Europe’s political leaders at the Spring Council strongly to support mandatory certification of biofuels, covering, beyond greenhouse gas balance, also their other environmental impacts such as on biodiversity and freshwater supplies.”

Notes to editors:

- Not all biofuels perform equally well. Some are more likely to worsen the state of the environment, rather then making any meaningful contribution. Many environmental experts believe that only the best performing biofuels, identified through a life-cycle analysis which covers the entire production process from seed to tank, should be eligible for public support. Such a life-cycle analysis should also consider non-climatic environmental impacts such as those on soil, biodiversity and water. The revised Fuel Quality Directive could, if designed well, play an important role in this respect

- The Biofuels Directive sets ‘reference values’ of a 2% market share for biofuels in 2005 and 5.75% in 2010. The 2005 target of 2% biofuels was not achieved. With the objectives set by Member States, the share of biofuels would have attained, at most, only 1.4%. The Commission has launched infringement proceedings in seven cases where Member States adopted low targets without due justification

- The expansion of crops such as palm oil, soy and sugar cane at the expense of natural habitats such as rainforest, is already a primary driver of global biodiversity decline. Palm oil is thought to be responsible for the loss of 1.2m ha of rainforest in Malaysia and 2m ha in Indonesia. Further demand following a growing international bioenergy market can only increase this pressure.

- Biofuels are often referred to as ‘carbon neutral’. They are not. In reality, they release greenhouse gases throughout their production cycle. Indeed, the emissions savings on offer are highly variable and can be very small, or even negative, depending how they are grown and processed. The GHG savings from biofuels risk being lost if their production causes the loss of high carbon land-uses. Between 10 and 30% of global GHG emissions are already due to land-use change. This is principally as a result of tropical deforestation, but grasslands also represent an important ‘carbon sink’.


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Nico Muzi
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