Azara Blog: It's biofuel bashing day on the BBC

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Date published: 2008/01/14

Biofuels have been getting a (deservedly) bad press recently and the BBC decided that today is the day to run several articles all saying the same thing. The first says:

Europe's environment chief has admitted that the EU did not foresee the problems raised by its policy to get 10% of Europe's road fuels from plants.

Recent reports have warned of rising food prices and rainforest destruction from increased biofuel production.

The EU has promised new guidelines to ensure that its target is not damaging.

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said it would be better to miss the target than achieve it by harming the poor or damaging the environment.

A couple of years ago biofuels looked like the perfect get-out-of-jail free card for car manufacturers under pressure to cut carbon emissions.

Instead of just revolutionising car design they could reduce transport pollution overall if drivers used more fuel from plants which would have soaked up CO2 while they were growing.

The EU leapt at the idea - and set their biofuels targets.

Since then reports have warned that some biofuels barely cut emissions at all - and others can lead to rainforest destruction, drive up food prices, or prompt rich firms to drive poor people off their land to convert it to fuel crops.

"We have seen that the environmental problems caused by biofuels and also the social problems are bigger than we thought they were. So we have to move very carefully," Mr Dimas told the BBC.

"We have to have criteria for sustainability, including social and environmental issues, because there are some benefits from biofuels."

He said the EU would introduce a certification scheme for biofuels and promised a clampdown on biodiesel from palm oil which is leading to forest destruction in Indonesia.

Some analysts doubt that "sustainable" palm oil exists because any palm oil used for fuel simply swells the demand for the product oil on the global market which is mainly governed by food firms.

Indeed. There will no doubt be some "sustainable" biofuel sources that (1) don't wreak environmental damage, (2) don't cause almost as much emissions as they "save" and (3) don't diplace food production. But that day is not upon us yet. So the EU targets are ridiculously optimistic and could easily end up doing much more damage than good.

Along the same lines, the second BBC article says:

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.

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

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 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.

Indeed, and when you count up everything, it's possible these are even more polluting than some fossil fuels.

Finally, the third BBC article says:

Biofuels may play a role in curbing climate change, says Britain's Royal Society, but may create environmental problems unless implemented with care.

In a new report, the Society suggests current EU and UK policies are not guaranteed to reduce emissions.

It advocates more research into all aspects of biofuel production and use.

The report says the British government should use financial incentives to ensure companies adopt cutting-edge and carbon-efficient technologies.
Launching the Royal Society report, Professor Pickett noted that current EU and US policies did not mandate that biofuels should achieve any carbon saving.

The report said that the UK government's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which mandates that 5% of fuel sold on filling station forecourts by 2010 must come from renewable sources, suffers from the same flaw, though changes are being discussed in Whitehall.

As a result, the report concludes, these policies "will do more for economic development and energy security than combating climate change".

On the UK policy front, the Society advocates:

More generally, it says research into new biofuel technologies should be encouraged through financial incentives.

Nothing specifically that original here. And it is bizarre that a Royal Society report could be written which says that carbon pricing should be "extended" to transport fuels. Transport fuels already pay a huge carbon tax (called fuel duty). Indeed, the recent Stern report recommended a carbon tax of around a dollar a US gallon, so around 13p per liter, on petrol (gasoline). But the current tax is around 59p per liter. Of course some of this tax pays for roads to be built and maintained, and for other negative effects of cars such as ill health, but it is abundantly clear that drivers already pay more than enough of a carbon tax. What we need in Britain is for other sources of carbon to be properly taxed. But of course the British ruling elite hate cars and airplanes (except when they themselves use them, of course) so illogically believe that only these sources of carbon should be taxed. It's a bit pathetic when an allegedly reputable scientific body cannot even figure that one out.

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