Biofuels: the sky's not the limit; it's the land

Biofuels may still have a bright future in Europe, despite the controversies surrounding them - but only if we get the regulation right, writes Pieter de Pous of the European Environmental Bureau.

Over recent months, biofuels have been hyped to the skies - at least they have in the EU. Depending on one's perspective, biofuels are a solution to an agriculture sector seeking new outlets for its crops, a means for the automotive industry to avoid legislation on CO2 emissions from cars, a way out for politicians getting increasingly nervous about security of energy supply and needing to be seen taking action against climate change, and last but not least, a solution for environmentalists who want to keep climate change within the two-degree limit.

With the European Commission planning to publish its proposal for a revised Biofuels Directive by the end of 2006 and contemplating the introduction of mandatory targets on biofuels consumption, we can expectit looks like becoming quite a hot summer.

Environmental constraints

To start with the environmental objectives of biofuels, the debate has increasingly centered on the degree to which biofuels balance the greenhouse gas, carbon and energy equation and what the environmental and social impacts will be of large-scale energy crop production.

Addressing the last question first, the impact will in fact be very similar to the large-scale production of food crops. The problem here is that biofuel production comes on top of current food production and will therefore significantly increase environmental pressures. This simple fact puts very strong limits in absolute terms on the total quantity of biofuels the world can produce, after growing human food, animal feed and fibre, while allowing for the survival of the ecosystem on which all depend.

With land the limiting factor, we return to the first question. What is the most efficient way of producing energy from crops, both in terms of energy as well as the carbon/energy balance? On this question, hundreds of studies have already been published, often producing differing outcomes, depending on the methodology used for the Life Cycle Analysis and data origin. The conclusion is that it matters very much what kind of material biofuels are sourced from, the origin of this material, and how it is processed.

Given that land is very much a limiting factor, we must therefore ensure we produce biofuels in the most efficient way possible by supporting research and development into the most promising technologies. An EU policy that simply sets mandatory targets for member states would result in the cheapest commodity crops available on the world market today dramatically increasing, bringing the expansion of the plantations producing these crops and worsening the plantations' negative environmental and social impact.

Political context

The fact that land is the limiting factor also raises pressing questions on the political context of a biofuels policy. The transport sector is still experiencing very strong growth in energy consumption and, apart from historically high oil prices, there is no sign that this will change in the short-term. It is clear that tackling carbon emissions from transport is a matter of the utmost urgency.

Of all the available policies to achieve this goal, promoting biofuels is politically the most attractive. But, taken in isolation, it is also very dangerous since there is an absolute limit to the quantity of biofuels the world can produce without devastating our ecosystem. This means we should prioritise reducing total fuel consumption in transport before setting any kind of percentage target on how much conventional fuel should be replaced by how much biofuel by 2010 or any other date.

To put this in perspective, if one were to meet current world transport demands with the most productive biofuel available today (ethanol from Brazilian sugar), one would need more than a third of the worlds agricultural land, or nearly all agricultural land in the tropics.

But in a European Commission white paper, to be published on July 22 2006, which reviews transport policy and proposes future orientations, the Commission in fact lowers its ambitions in this respect, dropping the key objective of decoupling transport demand from economic growth. This means that Commission transport policy is out of balance.

To push for biofuels in this context and without looking at the total environmental and social impacts of production and greenhouse gas balance is irresponsible. Luckily, the European Commission is at least showing more commitment on the latter. Its Biofuels Strategy expressly states that it will 'work to ensure the sustainability of biofuel feedstock cultivation in the EU and third countries'.

Next steps

The coming months will show whether this political commitment will be translated into specific actions in the framework of revising the Biofuels Directive. Such action should start with a thorough, expert-level stakeholder process to look at how much land is available today to produce food, feed, fibre and energy crops, bearing in mind the necessary environmental constraints and the needs of a world population which is estimated to stabilise at 9 billion.

Based on this assessment, the stakeholder group should then look at policy measures that will ensure the most efficient, and environmentally best-performing biofuels are favoured, using raw materials with the lowest environmental impact. One helpful contribution would be the design and implementation of a mandatory certification scheme. In the United Kingdom an interesting process has taken place, in the framework of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, which has delivered exactly that; a certification scheme for biofuels linked to the UK's road fuel obligation. It is now up to the European Commission to set up a similar process in the EU, if only to avoid developing different national certification schemes, thereby fragmenting policy.

But most importantly, and it needs to be stressed repeatedly, the European Commission should, through legislation, aim for ambitious targets in the field of energy efficiency, strongly reduce total liquid fuel consumption as well as promoting other renewable energy sources.

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