Biofuels were back in the spotlight in Brussels last week when the European Parliament and European Energy Ministers gathered to discuss a review of EU biofuels legislation. Oxfam is concerned that EU policy creates incentives for biofuels production which pushes up food prices, encourages land grabs and, in many cases, increases rather than reduces dangerous greenhouse gas emissions.
The conference room in the European Parliament was packed for three hours of presentations from experts who have modeled the impact of Europe’s insatiable thirst for biofuels on global land use, food prices and carbon emissions, and debate on what to do about it.
Experts: biofuels make climate hot and food expensive
It’s hard to summarize years of research in a few lines but essentially it boils down to two key facts:
- First, food-based biofuels made from rapeseed, palm, soy or other vegetable oils are more polluting than fossil fuels because they displace agriculture onto new land which previously stored lots of carbon. Experts told Parliamentarians that the best way to fight climate change is to use less not more biofuel. “Reducing the biofuel ambition is the most direct way to limit additional land use emissions,” declared David Laborde from the International Food Policy Research Institute.
- Second, cutting back on biofuels is needed to avoid food price rises. To avoid competition between food and fuels, “the simplest policy is to stop subsidizing and mandating biofuels,” concluded Ronald Steenblik of the OECD’s Trade and Agriculture Directorate.
Following Steenblik’s advice would allow Europe to reallocate the billions it spends subsidizing food-based biofuels on truly sustainable transport policies. The European Commission took a timid step in this direction last October when it proposed to limit the share first generation biofuels, produced from food crops such as corn and sugarcane, which count towards the binding EU-wide target of 10 per cent renewable energy use in transport by 2020.
What biofuels lobbyists say
That sounds like a return to sanity to anyone remotely interested in good governance. But to the biofuel industry representatives on the panel, this is madness. If Europe gives up on biodiesel, it will enslave itself to Russian President Putin and his country's oil, warned Raffaello Garofalo of the European Biodiesel Board. For e-Pure, the European ethanol lobby, the solution is not to scrap biofuels mandates, but to create new ones: a mandatory 10 per cent share of bioethanol in all petrol by 2020.
What’s more, the lobbyists say no one should be worried about anybody going hungry as a consequence because the industry produces animal feed as a by-product. “The European ethanol industry approximately adds as much food into the food chain as it consumes,” Thomas Gameson of e-Pure told MEPs after putting a pellet of “high protein GMO-free animal feed” into his mouth. “Cows find it delicious!” he added choking and gasping for water.
Getting politicians to do the right thing
Two days later, European Energy Ministers met in Brussels for their own discussion of the new European biofuels policy. In the complex European decision-making system a qualified majority of Member States and the European Parliament must agree on the new legislation. In a letter to Energy Ministers before the meeting, Oxfam and a wide coalition of environmental and development organizations had asked them to endorse a genuine and robust cap on the use of land-based biofuels and agree a trajectory to gradually phase out support for biofuels.
Unfortunately, as I listened to the speeches of the Energy Ministers on Friday morning, it was clear that many of them had been listening to the lobbyists for the biofuel industry rather than reading the reports from the experts. I hope they were rewarded with high protein GMO-free animal feed for lunch.
Fortunately, no decisions have been taken yet. Over the next few weeks Oxfam’s GROW campaign will do all it can to prevent Members of the European Parliament and national Ministers getting distracted by industry gimmicks and remind them what their decisions will mean for the millions of people going to bed hungry around the world each night.