Three years ago the European Union made a commitment that did not seem overly ambitious: to have a tenth of European transport energy come from renewable sources by 2020. Part of the plan was to have an ever-growing fleet of electric vehicles that could use some electricity from wind and solar power.

After 2015 the hydrogen car, which in principle can also drive on "green" energy, was also to come into more widespread use. Through these moves, energy security would be increased and greenhouse gas emissions reduced. The technological revolution, however, has been lagging, and so it has fallen to biofuels in particular to ensure the commitments are met.

Critics among scientists and in non-governmental organisations have been warning for years that the energy “harvested from fields" is not all good news. Because of it, world food prices have risen and traditional farmers in developing countries are being pushed off their land by industrial agriculture, which is moving in with pesticides and fertilisers and harming biodiversity. Tropical forests above all are suffering.

A warning letter

Europe argued that it was introducing biofuels sustainably. Under current legislation, crops converted to biofuels for European engines must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least thirty-five percent compared to conventional diesel or petrol engines, and they must not be cultivated on land that was formerly virgin forest or in any other valuable ecosystem – if they did, they would never pass the acceptance thresholds. Over the next few years the requirements for emissions savings should be significantly tightened up.

Why, then, did more than a hundred non-governmental organisations recently send the European Commission a warning letter, and why have about two hundred renowned scientists launched another appeal? The answer is to be found in four letters: ILUC, for “Indirect Land Use Change.” If it were European fields that were sown to oilseed rape for biodiesel, under current legislation all would be well: we would emerge with clear emission savings, even factoring in the fuel consumed in the harvesting and in producing fertilisers and so on.

European rapeseed, however, was once pressed into edible oils, which covered European consumption and even made its way into the kitchens of China and India; today, however, rapeseed oil is ending up in diesel engines, and Europe is importing vegetable oils to replace it. These replacement oils are made from (among other things) palm oils, which are grown on immense plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia – often on land opened up by clearing virgin rainforests and by draining wetlands.

Once these indirect emissions are factored in, it turns out that biofuel from rapeseed, enforced by quotas and supported by tax breaks, harms the climate more than conventional oil.

Europe may now become the laughing-stock

It's a startling discovery that is causing no end of trouble to the Commission. After two years of discussion it now seems that the indirect emissions could be written into the legislation, and the relevant proposal should be finalised in the summer. If that legislation were to be truly rigorous, though, biodiesel in its current form would not pass certification. This would not, however, mean the end of biofuels. Today, biodiesel occupies eighty percent of the European biofuel market, while bioethanol (similar to biodiesel) for gasoline engines takes up the remaining 20 percent.

Despite this, bringing in new regulations will not be easy. Years ago the Union sent a signal to investors, who put money into biodiesel, and in good faith that they would be helping to combat climate change. Though the European Commission wants to protect their investments to some extent, they can still lose. Legitimate complaints can therefore be expected.

The story of biofuels has become further proof that the current environmental crisis has no easy solution. Europe may now become the laughing-stock of climate-change and other sceptics ("We told you so way back"), but that should not put a stop to the legitimate quest for a sustainable future, which of course can be accompanied by errors.