Harvesting Trouble: Pressure Grows on EU to Abandon Biofuels

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With food prices skyrocketing and faith in biofuels plummeting, many are demanding that the European Union back away from its commitment to eco-fuel. Even the EU's own scientists are skeptical.

Protesters on Tuesday rally against the UK's new biofuel requirements.
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Protesters on Tuesday rally against the UK's new biofuel requirements.

The timing can, at best, be described as awkward. On Tuesday, the United Kingdom's new biofuel regulations went into effect, requiring that 2.5 percent of fuel sold at pumps in the UK be made up of fuel made from grains and grass. By 2010, the mixture will be boosted to 5 percent -- all in an effort to drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that gets pumped into the atmosphere.

But the regulation comes during a week of mounting critique against biofuels. With unrest around the world growing due to rising food prices, many are beginning to point their fingers at ethanol and biodiesel as important culprits. Even as the new UK regulations enact ambitious European Union goals aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the EU itself is facing increasing pressure to abandon its goal of seeing all fuel sold at pumps in Europe contain 10 percent biofuels by 2020.

First generation biofuels "don't hold as much potential environmental benefits as people thought when they embarked on these policies," Stefan Tangermann, Director of the Trade and Agricultural Directorate for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We must come to the conclusion that maybe it is time to revisit our commitment to biofuels."

Tangermann's is just one in a chorus of voices urging the EU to reconsider. The development charity Oxfam on Tuesday blasted the UK regulation, saying that green fuels have the potential to do much more harm than good. The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) argues in a paper released on Monday that biofuels negatively affect those in poorer countries. The paper argues that the growing biofuel industry competes directly with food crops for farmland, water and investment money. Food prices increase as a result and biofuels "put at risk access to food by the poorest sectors," the paper says.

And even the European Union's own scientific advisory body has gotten into the act. "I see absolutely no reason to use a lot of energy, money and large swaths of farmland" to produce biofuels, Professor Helmut Haberl, a member of the European Environment Agency's Scientific Committee, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The EU should scrap the 10 percent mixture rules."

His group includes 20 leading climate scientists from EU member states and plays a key advisory role for EU policy. Haberl said that the issue of biofuels has played an increasingly dominant role in the group's regular meetings -- a focus that last Friday resulted in an extraordinary plea for the European Union to abandon its 10 percent target. Calling the target "overambitious" and an "experiment," the paper argued that the side effects of biofuels are too harmful to ignore.

'A Crime Against Humanity'

The EU's immediate reaction to this week's critique has been one of defiance. "There is no question for now of suspending the target fixed for biofuels," Barbara Helfferich, a spokeswoman for EU Environmental Commissioner Stavros Dimas, told AFP on Monday.

But with the world's attention focusing on skyrocketing prices for food, it is doubtful that the issue will go away any time soon. The World Bank last week said that food prices have spiked 83 percent in the last three years and other international organizations have also jumped into the fray -- with UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Jean Ziegler calling biofuels production "a crime against humanity" on German radio on Monday. Unaffordable food has recently led to rioting in Haiti, Cameroon and elsewhere and is fuelling a growing government crisis in the Philippines.

Even were one to set aside rising food prices, skepticism of first-generation biofuels -- made from crops planted specifically for the purpose rather than, as with second-generation biofuels, processing agricultural by-products and other non-edible biomass -- is rampant. Scientists point to fertilizers used to grow biofuel crops as releasing more greenhouse gases than the fuel itself would save. Additionally, as the industry grows, rainforests are being cut down to make way for crops and peat bogs are being drained -- both valuable as "carbon sinks" that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Plus, as Haberl points out, the energy yield relative to the effort invested is not particularly impressive. "We could save much more energy if we just burned agricultural residue for heating," he says. "That would be much more efficient and you wouldn't be competing with food production."

Germany, so far, is the only EU country to have partially backed away from its commitment to biofuels -- but, as Haberl says, "for the wrong reasons." Having determined that far too many automobiles would be unable to process the eco-fuel, the Environment Ministry earlier this month opted not to up the biofuels mixture from the current 5 percent to 10 percent as had been planned.

Despite comments to the contrary, Brussels may be leaning towards a re-evaluation as well. The idea of introducing a field certification system -- which would greenlight only those biofuel crops grown ecologically on land not recently won through rain forest destruction -- is gaining credence.

"It looks a bit like people are beginning to take (criticism of biofuels) into account," Tangermann said. "The EU is beginning to be concerned about the sustainability and climate change part of it. And that is something we welcome."

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