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Last Updated: Monday, 14 January 2008, 17:04 GMT
EU promises sustainable plant fuel
By Paul Kirby
EU reporter, BBC News

Protest at Rotterdam port
Activists claim the dash for biofuel is causing more harm than good

Committing 27 EU states to slashing their carbon emissions was always going to be easier than following it through.

But the European Commission will try to make a significant step towards that target when it reveals its proposals on 23 January to raise the proportion of renewable energy consumption to 20% by 2020.

It still intends for one-tenth of Europe's energy to come from plants.

And, in response to negative reports on the effects of biofuels on the environment, officials have promised to come up with measures that will have a positive impact on carbon emissions.

'Demanding criteria'

Commission spokesman Ferran Tarradellas says the criteria will be "very demanding" and they will have four aims:

  • to reduce CO2 emissions
  • to give alternatives to farmers
  • to create fuel independence - currently the EU is dependent on foreign supplies for 90% of its transport fuels
  • where imports are needed, to create a demand and a labour force in developing countries that could benefit everyone

While there may appear to be little controversy in those ambitions, there is concern that the commission is not going far enough.

According to an early draft, it wants a minimum saving of greenhouse gas in comparison with the extraction of fossil fuels, although the figure involved is being kept under wraps.

The scramble to supply European markets is already causing frequent land disputes, forced evictions... and poor working conditions
Letter from 17 NGOs to the European Commission

The European Parliament's environment committee has already called for the minimum saving to be 50%.

Dutch MEP, Dorette Corbey, accepts the figure is "a little bit unlikely".

She says some of the plants currently being used are almost as polluting as fossil fuels. Among those that are not, she singles out sugar cane, rape seed and palm oil.

Even there, biofuels are not without controversy. Activists accuse Indonesia of destroying its forests faster than any other country for palm oil plantations or illegal logging.

Environmental harm

Non-governmental organisations including Friends of the Earth and Oxfam fear the proposals could harm ecosystems because, they say, there is no safeguard for water and soil resources.

They also fear that large-scale production could increase food prices in developing countries.

Casting doubts on the commission's declared aim of helping developing countries, the NGOs say the "scramble to supply European markets is already causing frequent land disputes, forced evictions... and poor working conditions".

Energy reform is shaping up to be one of the biggest tasks facing the European Union in 2008.

As well as setting out proposals for the use of biofuels, the commission will announce on the same day how it hopes to revise the carbon emissions trading scheme.

Set up initially to spur the market into finding a solution to climate change, the scheme was soon criticised for allowing companies the right to pollute without any penalty.

As with biofuels, the commission will have to find a way of marrying the needs of the market with the effects on the environment.

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