Biofuel plan will cause rise in carbon emissions
Wednesday, 10 November 2010
Britain's promise to more than double its use of biofuels by 2020 is "significantly" adding to worldwide carbon emissions, the Government admitted yesterday. Britain is signed up to a European guarantee to source 10 per cent of its transport fuel from renewable sources, such as biofuels, within the next 10 years.
But ministers have said that the policy is proving counter-productive and the greenhouse emissions associated with biofuels are substantially greater than the savings. They are now urging the European Commission to rethink the plan. The admission coincides with a major study published this week which concludes that biofuels will create an extra 56 million tons of CO2 per year – the equivalent of 12 to 26 million cars on Europe's roads by 2020.
This is because Europe will need to cultivate an area somewhere between the size of Belgium and the Republic of Ireland with biofuels to meet the target, which can only be done through land conversion – and more controversially, deforestation. The work will be on such a scale that the carbon released from the vegetation, trees and soil will be far greater than those given off by fossil fuels they are designed to replace.
The study, from the Institute for European Environmental Policy, found that far from being 35 to 50 per cent less polluting, as required by the European Directive, the extra biofuels will be twice as bad for the environment.
First generation biofuels, made from crops such as oilseed rape, sugar cane and palms , were once considered a solution to burning fossil fuels. Such crops, it was argued, would give off the same amount of carbon as they had absorbed when growing – making their use carbon neutral and a key component in reducing global emissions.
Last year Britain signed up to a European Union directive compelling the country to use biofuels to provide 10 per cent of total energy in transport by 2020, as part of a National Renewable Energy Action Plan. But since then, a growing body of scientific evidence has suggested that far from reducing emissions, biofuels may be increasing them.
There is not enough cultivatable land available to grow them in Europe, so forests in South America and Asia are being destroyed to meet European demand. Although under European rules biofuels cannot be bought from "new" agricultural lands such as these, biofuel businesses have got around this by buying up existing land. Forests are then cut down to make up for the loss of agriculture – a trick known as Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC).
Almost all biofuels used in the UK come from sources outside the EU, and the UK is anticipated to be the largest single importer from outside the community in order to reach its targets. In its response to a European consultation on biofuels published yesterday on the Department of Transport's website, the Government said it was time to reassess the policy.
"We consider that the results of the analytical work are compelling in showing that the greenhouse gas emissions from [ILUC] are significant compared to the potential emissions savings from biofuel use. The precise scale is uncertain, [but] this uncertainty cannot be ignored and, as with other aspects of climate change, cannot be a justification for inaction," the statement said.
Environmental charities have long argued that the European Union needs to rethink the target. Last night they welcomed the Government's move.
Tim Rice, ActionAid's biofuels policy advisor, said: "It's welcome that the Government recognises that greenhouse gas emissions from indirect land use change are significant. But now it must urge the European Commission to make sure that this compelling evidence is factored into new legislation."
Sir John Harman, chair of the Institute for European Environmental Policy and a former head of the Environment Agency, said the extent of the biofuels problem was now clear.
"What our report found was for European member states to meet their recently published plans on biofuels, they would have to cultivate an area somewhere between the size of Belgium and the Republic of Ireland. This is not viable and will result in a big Indirect Land Use Change outside the EU," he said.
Last night the Transport Minister Norman Baker said the Government was pushing the European Commission to take action to reduce the risk that producing biofuels will have knock-on effects including deforestation.
"Like other EU member states, the UK is required to source 10 per cent of its transport energy from renewable sources by 2020, however I agree that the environmental benefits of biofuels can only be realised if they are produced in a sustainable way."
Case study: Brazil
Since 2004, the amount of sugar cane grown in Brazil has increased by more than 50 per cent – a figure which is expected to double again by 2018.
The Brazilian government knows that, to open foreign markets to ethanol, it must demonstrate that production does not lead to deforestation. In 2009, it introduced zones for sugar cane expansion – excluding two of Brazil's most biodiverse areas: the Amazon rainforest and Pantanal.
But other agriculture in those zones has been pushed out as a result, into those same areas. When the farmers moved in, trees and other vegetation were burned or cleared to make way for pasture, reducing the capacity to store and sequester carbon.
As the land was cleared, the soil started oxidising, releasing massive amounts of stored carbon. While precise calculations are difficult, emissions from indirect land use change are significant.
UPDATE 1-Biofuel worse for climate than fossil fuel -study
* Industry says new science is insufficiently robust
* EU Commission says not yet time to change policy
(Adds European Commission and Novozymes comments)
By Pete Harrison
BRUSSELS, Nov 8 (Reuters) - European plans to promote biofuels will drive farmers to convert 69,000 square km of wild land into fields and plantations, depriving the poor of food and accelerating climate change, a report by green groups warned.
That estimated area equals the size of the Republic of Ireland.
As a result, the extra biofuels that Europe will use over the next decade will generate between 81 and 167 percent more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, the report said on Monday.
Nine environmental groups reached this conclusion after analysing official data on the European Union's goal of getting 10 percent of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020.
But the European Commission's energy team, which originally formulated the goal, countered that the bulk of the land needed would be found by cultivating abandoned farmland in Europe and Asia, minimising the impact.
New science has emerged this year casting doubt on the sustainability of the 10 percent goal, but EU energy officials have argued that only around two thirds of that target will be met through biofuels, with the balance coming from the powering of vehicles by renewable electricity.
But 23 of the EU's 27 member states have now published their national strategies for renewable energy, revealing that fully 9.5 percent of transport fuel will be biofuel in 2020, 90 percent of which will come from food crops, the report says.
"Most see quite a high level of contribution from biomass and from biofuel," Philip Lowe, director general of the European Commission's energy team, told Reuters. Lowe's team is currently studying whether or not to tweak legislation to take account of the emerging science.
"I think it's too early to judge whether the 10 percent objective should be reviewed or not," he added.
This year's fractious quest to understand the impact of EU biofuels policy has already led to allegations of bias, court action against the Commission and warnings that the probes will kill the nascent industry.
The debate centres on a new concept known as "indirect land-use change".
In essence, that means that if you take a field of grain and switch the crop to biofuel, somebody, somewhere, will go hungry unless those missing tonnes of grain are grown elsewhere.
The crops to make up the shortfall could come from anywhere, and economics often dictate that will be in tropical zones, encouraging farmers to hack out new land from fertile forests.
Burning forests to clear that land can pump vast quantities of climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere, enough to cancel out any of the benefits the biofuels were meant to bring.
The indirect effects of the EU's biofuel strategy will generate an extra 27-56 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year, says the report. In the worst case, that would be the equivalent of putting another 26 million cars on Europe's roads, it added.
The UK, Spain, Germany, Italy and France are projected to produce the most extra greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels, generating up to 13.3, 9.5, 8.6, 5.3 and 3.9 extra million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year respectively.
But the whole picture is far more complex.
The European Commission's energy team says shortfalls in grain can be avoided in several ways, including by improving farming yields and cultivating abandoned land.
Traditional biofuel producers also argue that EU officials should not alter biofuel-promoting policies to take account of the new science, because it is still too uncertain.
"Any public policy based on such highly debatable results would be easily challengeable at the World Trade Organisation," says Emmanuel Desplechin, of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA).
Denmark's Novozymes said it had already created a biofuel from straw, which is now available at Danish fuel pumps and does less indirect damage.
The EU should tweak policy to ensure the promotion of such "second-generation" biofuels, Novozymes added.
The report can be seen here: here (Additional reporting by Vera Eckert; Editing by James Jukwey)
© Thomson Reuters 2010 All rights reservedhttp://www.reuters.com/article/idAFLDE6A725920101108?sp=true