Europe’s biofuels policy has been a huge failure, particularly for the environment.
Hailed initially as a green solution that would cut fossil fuel usage, today it is clear that biofuels were an industry-backed climate disaster. In fact, they’ve actually led to more greenhouse gas emissions than had the continent stuck to just fossil fuels, according to a new report released last week.
“The new evidence is very hard to ignore – it’s not good for Europe’s credibility to prescribe a solution that is counterproductive,” said Jos Dings, Executive Director of the Belgium-based NGO Transport and Environment.
The argument in favor of biofuels was quite simple. Because they remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as is released in combustion, they are, in theory, carbon neutral. Also, they could easily replace petrol in transport, which was important because, at the time, electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cells were not entering the market in large enough numbers. Thus, many believed that biofuels could help Europe reduce its carbon footprint sooner than later. And because they can be grown locally, proponents argued that they would help the continent free itself from dependence on imported oil.
“In 2005 and 2006, there was a lot of enthusiasm for biofuels,” said Dings, “even some environmental groups wanted more of it.”
Divided, environmentalists lost out to the agricultural and auto-industry, both of whom supported expanding biofuel usage in Europe. What resulted was a directive that allowed food-based biofuels to be part of the 10 percent renewable fuels requirement for the transportation sector.
…but Emissions Didn’t Go Down
Over the past decade, mounting evidence has revealed that the most popular biofuels are not nearly as green as advertised.
Under pressure from environmentalists, the European Union (EU) commissioned the just-released Globiom report, which analyzed land-use changes connected to biofuels. What they found was astounding: Certain biofuels – particularly, biodiesels – on average had 1.8 times the greenhouse gas emissions as fossil diesel, with palm oil-based biodiesel producing three times as much.
By the time the Globiom report was released, biofuels’ negative carbon impact was already understood, but no study had ever found figures this high. Now it was clear, Europe’s biofuels policy was not solving climate change at all. It was, in fact, making things worse.
“Unsustainable land-use is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Bad biofuels put more carbon into the atmosphere,” said Rolf Skar, forest campaign director for Greenpeace USA, which opposes the use of most food-based biofuels.
The reason for the new, higher figures is that this study looked more deeply into emissions from land use changes. A significant portion of Europe’s biofuels comes from crops planted in tropical countries, most notably, palm oil from Southeast Asia, a crop that drove the first wave of plantation expansion in the early 2000s. In fact, many regional groups blame biofuels for promoting deforestation and its resulting negative impacts, such as last year’s devastating fires.
“Europeans should know that expanding oil palm plantations is bad for the climate, because [it leads to] thousands of forest fires and damage to carbon-rich peatlands,” said Bondan Andriyanu with Sawit Watch, an Indonesian NGO, in a press statement.
Can the EU Learn From Its Mistake?
The EU is now deciding its policy for the region’s post-2020 transportation fuel standards, which includes whether to alter the existing, industry-supported seven percent food-based biofuel cap. Environmental groups are calling for a drastic reduction in this limit – ideally to zero – by cutting the use of first generation biofuels from rapeseed, palm oil and soy.
This is not to say that all biofuels are bad. Some so-called second- and third-generation biofuels can be beneficial, as they utilize waste or agricultural by-products.
“[Biofuels] that are good for the environment have a significantly lower carbon footprint than conventional fuel without harmful side effects, such as intensification of unsustainable, carbon-intensive agriculture, increase of water usage and pollution, or land-grabbing and land rights conflicts,” said Skar.
Anything that requires vast acreage of crops to be planted is not a sustainable energy source – especially when the land that is cleared for planting tends to be carbon-rich, biodiverse forests. That is the dilemma facing the EU right now.
Europe can move in a new direction, and break the stranglehold of both the auto industry and agricultural interests, with an improved transportation fuels policy. It’s a lesson worth learning right here in the United States. Though we don’t import biofuels from Southeast Asia, the vast acres of Midwestern farmland devoted to producing corn ethanol – which has a similarly negative environmental impact – make the region ripe for policy changes. This industry also sucks billions in government subsidies that could be far better used promoting truly green alternative energies.
It’s time to let the science determine our energy future, both in Europe and here at home.