European advisory pannel appeals to slow down on biofuel
Last Friday an advisory panel to the European Environment Agency issued an extraordinary scientific opinion: The European Union should suspend its goal of having 10 percent of transportation fuel made from biofuel by 2020.
The European Union's biofuel targets were increased and extended from 5.75 percent by 2010 to 10 percent by 2020 just last year. Still, Europe's well-meaning rush to biofuels, the scientists concluded, had produced a slew of harmful ripple effects - from deforestation in Southeast Asia to higher prices for grains.
In a recommendation released last weekend, the 20-member panel, made up of some of Europe's most distinguished climate scientists, called the 10 percent target "overambitious" and an "experiment" whose "unintended effects are difficult to predict and difficult to control."
"The idea was that we felt we needed to slow down, to analyze the issue carefully and then come back at the problem," Laszlo Somlyody, the panel's chairman and a professor at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, said in a telephone interview.
He said that part of the problem was that when it set the targets, the European Union was trying desperately to solve the problem of rising transportation emissions "in isolation," without adequately studying the effects of other sectors like land use and food supply.
"The starting point was correct: I'm happy that the European Union took the lead in cutting greenhouse gasses and we need to control traffic emissions," Somlyody said. "But the basic problem is it thought of transport alone, without considering all these other effects. And we don't understand those very well yet."
The panel's advice is not binding and it is not clear whether the European Commission will follow the recommendation.
It has become increasingly clear that the global pursuit of biofuels - encouraged by a rash of targets and subsides in both Europe and the United States - has not produced the desired effect.
Investigations have shown, for example, rain forests and peat swamp are being cleared to make way for biofuel plantations, a process that produces more emissions than the biofuels can save. Equally concerning, land needed to produce food for people to eat is planted with more profitable biofuel crops, and water is diverted from the drinking supply.
In Europe and the United States, food prices for items like pizza and bread have increased significantly as grain stores shrink and wheat prices rise.
The price of wheat and rice are double those of a year ago, and corn is a third higher, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said this week.
"Food price inflation hits the poor hardest, as the share of food in their total expenditures is much higher than that of wealthier populations," said Henri Josserand of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Biofuels are not, of course, the only reason for high food prices. Fuel to transport food is more expensive with oil more than $100 a barrel. There have been unexpected droughts this year as well.
But the rush to meet biofuels targets has put our "need" to drive a car to the mall in direct competition with the need to eat in some of the poorest countries in the world.
A global analysis performed by forestry experts at the Australian International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a scientific study group, found that biofuels were "in conflict with the reduction of deforestation" and also had negative effects on farming intensity and food security.
It also concluded that the rush to make biofuels from crops like corn, soy and rapeseed did not do much to reduce global greenhouse gasses anyway, producing an "ambiguous effect on greenhouse gas emissions." This is partly because of land use changes like the clearing of forests and partly because the process of converting plants into fuel takes a lot of energy itself.
The European Union started promoting biofuels for use in transportation in 2003 as emissions from road transportation had been growing rapidly.
It required that 2 percent of transport fuel come from biofuel by 2005 and 5.75 percent by 2010. The first goal was not met and the 2010 goal is expected to be missed as well. Even so, the goal was raised to 10 percent by 2020, raising the pressure for countries to comply.
Should we conclude that all biofuels are bad?
No. But motivated by the obvious problems now emerging, scientists have begun to take a harder look at their benefits.
For example, the European Environment Agency advisory panel suggests that the best use of plant biomass is not for transport fuel but to heat homes and generate electricity.
To be useful for vehicles, plant matter must be distilled to a fuel and often transported long distances. To heat a home, it can often be used raw or with minimal processing, and moved just a short distance away.
Likewise, the ambitious 10 percent target has led to destruction of vital natural resources, the European Environment Agency recommendation said, "increasing pressures on soil, water and biodiversity" in Europe and elsewhere.
"We felt we need to understand more about biofuels and to integrate these various goals before just moving ahead," said Somlyody, the panel's chairman.
Source: Internatiaonl Herald Tribune