The biofuel policy of the European Union is at a crossroads. Currently, an EU law mandates the use of biofuels largely made up of food crops that, instead of reducing emissions, have been shown to increase them. In trying to extinguish a fire, the EU is in fact fuelling the flames. It’s now up to our politicians to clean up the mess.
This week, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have the opportunity to right this wrong. We are asking them to reverse the expansion of harmful biofuels. Priority must be given to real solutions for greener transport.
The imperative to change the course of EU biofuel policy could hardly be stronger. Years of research on the impacts of the first generation of biofuels made from food crops like maize, palm oil, rapeseed and soybeans have shown that they push out existing food production. This in turn can lead farmers to clear rainforests, savannahs and peatlands for new agricultural space, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This phenomenon is called indirect land-use change (ILUC). When these emissions are taken into account, the majority of food-based biofuels have a carbon footprint which is worse or not significantly better than the fossil fuels they replace.
But the negative impacts of EU policy do not just affect the climate. Biofuel monoculture plantations involve pesticides and fertilizers, increase pressure on water resources, and degrade ecosystems.
The diversion of food crops into fuel tanks also has impacts on the world’s food security. The US already uses 40 per cent of its corn for ethanol, and in the EU more than 60 per cent of rapeseed is used for biofuels. Although estimates vary, it is clear that using food crops for fuel has led to higher prices for agricultural feedstocks and higher food price volatility.
In a world of shrinking agricultural land, using food for fuel just doesn’t make sense.
This expansion of food-based biofuels has been driven by the vested interests of large cereal and vegetable oil producers and powerful agri-business lobbies. Every year, billions of euros are wasted by governments in Europe to support the production of food-based biofuels.
It is difficult to understand why food-based biofuels should be supported as part of a policy designed to green EU transport and combat climate change, if their carbon footprint is worse or not noticeably better than conventional fuels and their production puts the world’s food security in jeopardy.
The solutions to slash carbon emissions from transport exist. The future of green transport lies in innovative technologies to reduce energy consumption in transport, green mobility in cities, and cars and trains which run on renewable electricity.
Biofuels and biogas produced from genuine waste and truly sustainable residues can play a role in our energy mix for transport, as long as their consumption remains within sustainable limits. There is potential in sustainable biowaste, sewage sludge and agricultural waste, to name a few.
When they vote this Wednesday, MEPs have a choice. They can continue on the current dead-end path of hunger and environmental destruction, or take the evidence on board and change course to put our transport onto a genuinely green path.
We urge them to vote the right way.
Sebastien Risso & Sini Harkki
Sebastien Risso is Greenpeace EU's forests policy director.
Sini Harkki is Greenpeace's senior EU biofuels campaigner.