Page last updated at 15:20 GMT, Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Harrabin's Notes: Battle over biofuel strategy

In his regular column, BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin asks whether the EU's biofuels policy will stand up to scrutiny.

Damaged rainforest
Rainforest being chopped down in Kuala Cenaku, Sumatra, Indonesia.

Legislate in haste, repent at leisure: is that the syndrome afflicting the EU's biofuels policy?

Environmentalists fear it is - and their latest manoeuvre to stem the biofuel tide is a legal action to force the European Commission to publish thousands of pages of evidence of the impacts of plant fuels on the environment.

The Commission's evidence is being compiled as part of a cross-directorate investigation into the potential downsides of biofuels, which goes public later in the year.

Green campaigners want to see all the background research immediately because they believe that some of the papers already confirm that biofuels may do more harm than good.

The Commission says it has released more than 8,000 pages of evidence and is still sifting the rest for commercial confidentiality. A Commission spokesman said: "We are not stalling but trying to deal with a massive demand here."

A Commission source speaking to me accused green groups of using the legal action as a publicity stunt. But he admitted that technically the Commission is in breach of its duty to provide information on time, so the demand has now entered the independent General Court - Europe's second-highest court of appeal.

The environmentalists say they suspect that the Commission's analysis contains explosive evidence that could blow the EU's biofuels strategy apart.

Carbon footprint

The EU wants 10% of all transport fuels from "renewable sources" including biofuels by 2020. It is also pushing the role of biofuels in the 20% target for renewable energy from heat and electricity.

But the campaigners say EU evidence already released reveals that driving biofuels policy too hard could create food shortages whilst also driving farmers in the tropics into wetlands and rainforests.

Palm fruits on plantation (AFP)
Palm oil plantations may end up being classified as forests

And Reuters news agency reports one leaked document - between senior agricultural and energy figures in the Commission - saying that taking account of biofuels' full carbon footprint could "kill" their role in the EU.

The new case against the Commission is being driven by Tim Grabiel from the non-profit lawyers ClientEarth. He told BBC News: "We suspect that biofuel is the ultimate "Emperor's New Clothes" policy. It is designed to tackle climate change: it may help agro-business and businessmen - but if it doesn't help tackle climate change, it is useless. The subsidies are simply creating artificial demand."

What's in a forest?

Green groups have also been angered by a separate EU policy statement leaked to BBC News. They say it could grant plantations of palm oil the same status as natural rainforests.

The draft communication from the Commission to the European Parliament on the sustainability of biofuels, document BI (10) 381, says natural forests have to be protected.

But the devil is in the definition of a forest. It says: "Continuously forested areas are defined as areas where trees have reached, or can reach, a height of five metres, making up a crown cover of more than 30%. They would normally include natural forest, forest plantations and other plantations such as palm oil. This means that a change from forest to oil palm would not per se constitute a breach of the criterion [for sustainability]."

Agri-business in Malaysia has argued strongly for this provision, making the case that palm oil plantations lock up more carbon than, say, scrubland.

Some studies confirm this, but green groups point out that if plantation bosses succeed in redefining palm oil as forestry that will attract double subsidies from European taxpayers - for managing forests and for producing biofuels.

Kenneth Richter from Friends of the Earth said: "This is absolutely appalling - they are bending over backwards to support the palm oil industry. To equate a palm oil plantation in the same category as a rainforest is dishonest and outrageous." When I queried the Commission about this policy, they declined to comment.

A significant issue is the displacement of food crops by biofuels

The green groups' fears have been heightened by a recent unpublished report for the British government's Department for Transport, DfT, by the consultancy E4tech. It suggests that palm oil may produce more CO2 than it saves, and that the CO2 case for using rapeseed oil is marginal. If confirmed this would rule out subsidies for these crops for use on EU roads as EU rules oblige biofuels to save significant CO2 over fossil fuel alternatives.

The E4tech study also warns of immense uncertainties in modelling the future impacts of biofuels on carbon alone. It points to great uncertainty in the IPCC over carbon content of different land types, multiplied by wobbly land-use data from developing countries, then further compounded by the unpredictability of responses from markets and farmers. Some observers say the models are so soaked with uncertainty they are virtually worthless.

A DfT spokesman confirmed the warnings in the E4Tech report. She said: "Many biofuels, such as those from waste, have the potential to provide significant carbon reductions. However, some, such as palm oil produced under the wrong conditions, do not. The challenge is identifying and developing those biofuels which deliver the most environmental benefits."

But environmentalists point out that the E4tech study doesn't even attempt to factor in the other potentially malign side-effects of fuel crops displacing food crops.

Biofuels policy is becoming a nightmare for politicians who now increasingly refer to fuel from waste when they refer to sustainable biofuel - although this has its limitations too as the world attempts to cut back on waste and to find alternative uses for waste products.

The politicians joined the biofuels game in good faith hoping for a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for climate change. They are now imprisoned between their wish to protect the environment and their need to retain the confidence of investors they have attracted into the game.

Their discomfort means that the UK, for instance, is currently offering subsidies for power generation and transport to fuels shown by its own studies to be counter-productive. Councils like Bristol will be heaping the pressure on whomever wins the election to scrap the subsidies.

Politicians feel the need to tread carefully with business, though. They will need the support from investors to create new energy sources and they won't win business credibility by putting an entire structure of bio-incentives in place then tearing it apart.

But one thing is for certain - the pressure won't go away. One of the few points of agreement among many environmentalists and climate sceptics is that biofuels policy as currently framed looks like a serious mistake.

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