In January, the European Union's policy on biofuels seemed clear. By 2020, the European Commission decided, 10 percent of the fuel used by cars and trucks on roads in the EU should come from biofuels and other renewable energy sources. It was a far-reaching plan, hammered out in 2007, that aimed at cutting the emission of harmful greenhouse gases from European exhaust pipes.
Now, though, the European Union may be considering taking its first baby steps away from the once-touted environmental elixir. Over the weekend, French Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, at an informal meeting in Paris with his colleagues from other EU member states, suddenly remembered that not all of the 10 percent cut needed to come from biofuels.
"We reminded ourselves that the (Climate Action and Renewable Energy Package) also makes reference to powering vehicles with gas, electricity or hydrogen," Borloo said. "Renewable doesn't just mean biofuels."
Jochen Homann, a deputy in Germany's Economics Ministry, went even further. "We have to decide if the quota can be kept," he told reporters. "It might be changed."
At the Doorstep of Biofuels
The apparent shift comes as the storm of criticism against biofuels continues unabated. For months, many environmentalists have been criticizing the fuel -- made from plants and grains grown on farmland -- for providing only a marginal benefit to the environment. The big business of biofuels, say many, encourages farmers in the developing world to cut down rainforests and drain peat bogs, thus destroying areas valuable for their capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.
Furthermore, biofuels may be significantly contributing to the ongoing dramatic rise in food prices. An internal World Bank report, leaked to the Guardian last week, even claims that up to 75 percent of the rise in food prices can be laid at the doorstep of biofuels.
But is the European Union really considering an about-face? According to Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, the European energy commissioner's spokesperson, nothing has changed. In response to Borloo's sudden epiphany, Espuny told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "We never wanted to focus on biofuels to the exclusion of other technologies." Given the complexity of other technologies -- electric automobiles, hydrogen-powered cars and others -- biofuels is still likely to remain on the top of the list of renewable energies when it comes to vehicles in Europe, he said.
"It is true that we are under a lot of criticism," he went on, "but at this point in time the evidence is not that we should revisit our policy on biofuels."
There are many who would disagree. Environmental groups began attacking the EU commitment to biofuels even before the ink on the January agreement had dried. When one takes into account the fertilizer used for many biofuels crops, the destruction of rainforests and other carbon sinks for biofuel crop plantations and the costs of transport, so goes the argument, biofuels aren't carbon neutral at all, and may even do more harm than traditional fossil fuels do.
Soon, though, it wasn't just environmentalists going after plant power. In April, officials with both the Organization for Economic Trade and Development (OECD) and the European Union's own scientific advisory body told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the EU should reverse its stance on biofuels. United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food Jean Ziegler, with an eye on food prices soaring worldwide, even blasted biofuels as a "crime against humanity."
But even if the European Commission may not be listening for the moment, the European Parliament certainly is. On Monday evening, the parliament's Committee on the Environment is considering a proposed revision to the EU's biofuels targets. The primary aim of the draft opinion, written by member of parliament Anders Wijkman -- who is also the committee's biofuels expert -- is to encourage the European Commission to slow down on biofuels.
"There are many unknowns," Wijkman told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Monday. "We need more research... I think there is a feeling that what was decided in 2007 was not based on a thorough analysis of the pros and cons. We have to slow down the pace and tread with more caution so as to avoid a clash with food production."
Wijkman and his committee members would like to see a series of intermediate targets. By 2015, he said, the EU-wide fuel mixture should be made up of 4 percent biofuels, and then a major review should be carried out to see if the mixture should be raised.
He also would like to see a more ambitious goal when it comes to the amount of CO2 emissions saved by biofuels as compared with fossil fuels. The European Commission adopted a goal of 35 percent savings whereas Wijkman's parliamentary committee, should his proposal be adopted on Monday evening, would argue in favor of a 45 percent minimum, which would then rise to 60 percent in 2015.
In addition, the committee is looking into a certification program, to ensure that fields repurposed to grow biofuels crops were not just recently carved out of the rainforest. His proposal foresees the EU importing biofuels from developing countries -- primarily, he says, because weather conditions there mean more energy production per hectare -- but tries to ensure that such imports are sustainable.
'Get them Unstuck'
He told SPIEGEL ONLINE that biofuel crops harvested from fields created after the 2005 cut-off date would not be certified. Those currently producing biofuel crops below the 45 percent efficiency minimum would have until 2013 to improve, he said. Should the proposals be adopted on Monday evening, it would not change European policy. It would, however, adjust the European Parliament's position on biofuels when it comes to negotiations with the Commission.
"I am absolutely convinced that biofuels can be done right, but there are a number of factors that have to be looked at," Wijkman, who is an MEP from Sweden, says. "The Council seems to be stuck, and hopefully this will get them unstuck."
Judging from the message being sent by the European Commission, Wijkman is likely to be disappointed. At least when it comes to the recent criticism that biofuels are driving up food prices, spokesman Espuny is clear.
"To reach our 10 percent target, we need 4 million tons of agricultural commodities. Total production of cereals, though, is 2.2 billion tons," he said. "I am not an economist, but if you could tell me how 4 million tons could have a large impact on cereal prices at all, I'd be happy to listen."