Biofuels: Not so green after all

A field of rapeseed County Wiltshire, England
A field of rapeseed County Wiltshire, England
16 June 2010 – Trouw (Amsterdam)

The European Commission has introduced a new biofuels certification scheme to combat deforestation, among other laudable objectives. But biofuel production uses up a great deal of arable land and if food crop farmers have to move elsewhere, more land may end up being cleared....

Forests are often cut down to make room for biofuel production, which is why it can hardly be termed a “sustainable” energy source. In an effort to remedy the situation, the European Commission this week announced a new certification scheme for “real” sustainable biofuels. But does this new approach in Brussels really address the problem of the unsustainability of biofuels?

No, it doesn’t, observes Jan Ros, head of a bio-energy project at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL). To be sure, the new certification scheme might keep some forests from being felled to produce palm or rapeseed oil for our fuel tanks. But then that palm or rapeseed might have to be grown on soil previously used to grow wheat for food. Which would mean relocating the wheat production to new sites, which would have to be cleared by chopping down the existing trees there. Which clearly wouldn’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which is, of course, the whole point of using biofuels. On the contrary, that would ultimately increase emissions and the European Commission’s new directive still doesn’t take this 'indirect effect' into account.

"That is indeed cause for concern,” points out Ros. And the Commission concurs, so it is currently looking into complementary criteria for a more precise definition of biofuel sustainability. This is no simple matter, concedes Ros, who regularly confers with Brussels experts in this domain. He insists on the need to develop models for calculating world agricultural production data. "If a grain crop gives way to rapeseed production, for example, you’ve got to wonder whether that isn't going to increase demand for grain in the global market.” The models are highly complex, since they have to allow for many different factors, including world population growth. "But at least they’d make it possible to assess risks,” explains Ros.

Now supposing all the models show that increased biofuel production indirectly leads to the disappearance of natural areas elsewhere. What can the responsible policymakers like the European Commission do about that? One solution might be to intensify food production so as to increase the yield per hectare on the same land. But if that entails using more artificial fertilisers, the upshot will be a further increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Other options include making greater use of inedible waste products from food crop production, though this application needs to be further developed, or confining biofuel cultivation to land that is unfit for food crops. Europe could also quite simply raise its emissions reduction targets, or reward countries that avoid using new land by improving their agricultural productivity.

So it’s far from easy, Ros reiterates. "But this is the new inescapable challenge for sustainability. Not only does every production chain have to be clean, but we’ve also got to ask how many of those chains the world can actually afford.”

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